It’s about a father searching for his daughter, a film crew, a lost empress, creatures that shouldn’t exist, and the amazing earth at its very end.Introduction:
Do you remember a blue sky? Not just blue, but wide as the eye can see blue, and deep, eternally deep. A vista at once calm and still, but free and full of dreams, so open, but somehow undeniably certain, and as much a part of the fullness of existence as breathing? Here there is no such sky, such a sky is long forgotten. This is a broken sky, a broken mantle covering a broken landscape. The earth is dying, it is in its last violent throes.
A few fragile islands of life remain despite the toxic steam draughts, constant tremors, new chasms and wasted deserts, but not for much longer. You don’t need to be an expert to count the tremors, or see the ever more corrosive power of the recurrent ash clouds.
According to those who keep records it has been over two millennia since the main collapse, when the earth as it was known came to an end. Where people were separated from people, knowledge, progress and technology was lost and had to be regained, and many things that were never known when there was blue sky, that were never known before that time except as myth, things that should have remained hidden deep in stone and darkness were released, even before the ashes from that first great shift had settled and long before the molten rock that had escaped beyond those rifts had cooled.
Now, in 2319 post collapse, surviving colonies have regained and surpassed much of what was lost, but for the state of the world, which remains dire. All fear imminent and final disintegration of the inhabitable earth. Many of the outer remnants have already been lost, along with their cities and all the lives that dwelt in them, either consumed by the quakes or by the death that comes with the steam from the wastes. The end is coming, everyone knows it, but too long has the end been near, and the cities that survive remain superficially content as the people continue to be as they always have been, despite the convulsing earth; they are experts at surviving in this place. Wars are still fought, discoveries made, fortunes are still won and lost, and the media are hungry for stories as always, as information and distraction are commodities sought by a population constantly on edge.
One intrepid media crew begins an expedition hoping to document the vibrant cultures and peoples that inhabit the remaining islands of life before they are lost. Along the way they uncover stories of desperation and of hope, but their journey soon becomes more than anticipated as the crew struggle not only to film, but to survive. Connected to their journey is one man’s quest to find his long-lost daughter, another man’s desperation to hold together a fraying thread, and a people’s desire to uncover a descendent from an old royal line in order to re-establish their nation’s former strength to face what end comes.
This is their story.
Part 1: The Engineer’s Daughter
Introducing: The Soldier, the Engineer, the Father: Jonathan Rebus Mark.
Location: Outpost P12, “The Urchin.” Off the Island of Corrio, North Island States.
We begin at an insignificant little place, a desolate beacon standing silent out in the empty smog, the tiniest scrap of rock that ever formed part of this earth’s fragmented crust. This precarious fragment remains in spite of everything that has befallen, spinning around just like the other defiant yet weary splinters that together turn and make their way around the sun.
From a distance when the clouds condense low to the ground, this scrap of rock doesn’t look like part of the earth at all, but like a fallen satellite. Some have endearingly called it ‘The Urchin’ with reference to those spiny creatures that are found in the rare strands of remaining ocean – the spines, in this case, are formed from a great conglomeration of every kind and make of radio receiver and transmitter known to man, along with who knows what signal reading and relay instruments. However, for the purposes of distinguishing this particular rock from other such ones scattered in the far corners of this place, authorities have labelled this outpost P12.
There used to be a lighthouse here, when there were seas, when there were storms of winds and rain and cyclonic tempest, not of sand and rust and unbreathable air. P12 is still a lighthouse of sorts, a beacon. It collects information from the far corners, deciphers them, and sends any significant rumours to the ships and freighters, travellers, other outposts, and of course, back home to the relevant statisticians, media franchises, and government departments. Rumours, however, have been sparse for more than a few years now, from P12 in any case. One might have even thought P12 deserted but for the occasional relay of some necessary information about the state of volatility in one area or another, of weather and of wars.
As well as being this invaluable data resource P12 is a refuelling depot, but since the modern ships were far more fuel efficient, or ran on alternative energy for which P12 had not been equipped to supply, they would often bypass P12 altogether. For the ships that do go by, P12 provides a sort of coast-guard function and somewhat reliable weather beacon. With such an intemperate and unpredictable frontier lying out from the North Islands, a good captain knows never to place too much credence on forecasts, especially if good winds are predicted, for the only kind of winds this place has are searing and tainted with a bitter salt at the best, and barely breathable. At worst, well, they don’t list being a shipman as one of the most lethal occupations for nothing. Those winds could push you and the entire ship into the wastes without warning, where even breathing the air could kill you. So if the forecast from the mainland was good, no one believed it.
One man keeps watch over this fragment of rock and its conglomeration of decaying technology, an old soldier, and in his sparse communication he had never given an optimistic forecast, even if his array of instruments brought in fairly positive readings. He knows what it’s like out there only too well. But now he sits alone day after day watching, listening and thinking. He sends out the odd, doomed weather balloon, or works at re-wiring a broken transmitter, or welding together a new brace to replace a rusted-out one. He keeps an eye on the old computers and the radios for signals, for information, and stirs himself into action on the rare occasion of a customer or passing enquiry, but mostly he watches the walls of black screens, watching the instruments, analysing, revising, updating the weather readings.
He taps his fingers, blanks out, rubs the dark folds around his eyes, sips from his cup that always seems to contain room-temperature tea, watches, listens, revises. And from time to time when the weather brought the opportunity he would look up at the stars, they always amaze him. P12 is, or was, on top of everything else, an astronomical station. It was put in place at the outset of the exploration revolution, some time after the war of the mines. It has a white domed observatory with a powerful telescope looking up through a gap in the Urchin’s antennae. Although, it isn’t quite so white as it used to be. Like everything else decay is inevitable, especially out here. He can’t use it often in any case, as the atmosphere is usually too thick with cloud and dust to see much of anything.
It might be expected that here could only live the most eccentric or mad man obsessed by a passion for some particular branch of scientific enquiry which he can pursue here, largely undisturbed by others and with such an array of data and apparatus at his sole use, but the reality is the contrary. The man employed on the outpost of P12 is, by appearances, just an average, ordinary man doing his job, though he is built on a slightly more solid and larger scale than the rest. And like most average, ordinary men he gets tired, he gets bored, he eats and drinks what he shouldn’t eat and drink, doesn’t exercise as much as he should exercise, sleeps when he is tired, but generally does a fairly good job even though he isn’t really enthused about it. It’s not the most respected position either, most ordinary citizens probably aren’t even aware of its existence, but for a man who neither cares nor thinks about it, it makes no difference. This is his chosen early retirement, to sit here day after day on below minimum wage. He’d rather be here than in the crowded cities, he had decided, he was weary of their stench and throng, and after all, someone had to be on P12 to relay to the ships the latest information about their destination, observe changes, update information and maintain the post.
It was at most times a nice quiet life, and the pay was near enough to make do with for a resourceful man like him, so he was content. But if anyone had been able to observe the man, they might have considered that he was in no way as content as he would have himself believe. First of all the man’s fingers were tapping twice as fast and twice as often as usual, and when he wasn’t tapping he would leave the observatory and take a turn around the Urchin, inspecting, or appearing to inspect, the receivers and transmitters, the landing bays, his lithop garden, which had sprung up entirely by itself in one corner of a deserted landing strip amongst the cracking asphalt, and everything else until there was nothing more to inspect, and going to great lengths to test the fuels for quality and make sure all were in good supply. All this was highly unusual. He had even done the regulation trial evacuation of the tower, to break up the monotony; he was supposed to do one every six months and this was the first time he’d done it in the years that he had been here. Any observer would have been intrigued, if not concerned by this behaviour.
The truth was that the soldier had begun to dream, which he had never in all his life till about a month ago, well, not dreams like this. These dreams were intense, real, gut-wrenching, heart pumping dreams which stayed with him in his waking hours. It was a strange thing, and terrifying, to a man who had considered being so affected by dreams proof of a weak mind. A doctor may have prescribed some mild sedative or anti-depressant, but drugs would have done nothing to cure him anyway and he knew it. Blue skies filled his dreams, blue as blue and eternally deep. No starry vista or shrouded desert could wrench his heart like that sky could. The first time he had seen anything close to it was in reality, in his youth, even though it was nothing like the full blue sky of his dreams, he had been struck with awe at such a sight – the fabled sky of Shorakai. It had taken his words away and filled his blood with a pulse that made every desire seem possible. Now it was just an illusion, haunting him at every hour. That blue blanket would be thrown off and he would be facing the black screens again and going through the monotonous readings.
The engineer’s daughter would have been 21 this year. 21. That’s 20 years he hadn’t seen her face or heard her laugh. 20 of the longest years a man could live. Yesterday he’d been so young himself, yesterday he’d held a baby in his arms and smiled the irrepressible smile of a new father. Today he felt fifty, or older, and yet one might wonder if underneath that furrowed brow, heavy head and lifeless eyes a strong young man still lingered, waiting for the right moment to fight against the time and torture that had been dealt him.
He would wash his face to try to wake himself up, touch the picture of his wife and baby girl tucked into the corner of the mirror, kiss his big fingers and touch them to the photo again, let himself be torn again seeing her cute green eyes and button nose. His daughter is his last link with this place, this accursed earth, if he could have found her his life would not have seemed like such a waste. If he could, he would give his life if only he could know that she was somewhere out there and alright. When he thinks of her and her mother and how perfect it was for that moment, he can believe that life was a wonderful gift. This last month in all his dreams he dreams of her mother, her voice echoing across that wide blue sky of her country, calling him. So he tries to stay awake, for nothing is more painful than the memory of his beautiful wife, the shock of her death and his guilt over losing their daughter.
Perhaps mother and daughter are both together now, somewhere in the afterworld. It is a nice thought in some ways, but so terribly bitter as he is here, and he is alone. But he can’t believe his precious child is there, for that he is her father has sustained him all these years, the last drop of hope the overtaking darkness could not quash, he believes that she has to be out there somewhere, but where? his mind asks over and over, if only he knew where! When it happened, when his daughter disappeared from the Universal City Port on Corrio, where he worked, neighbours and fellow workers had searched the streets with him, and the entire port, though the bosses had refused to shut it down, they still had helped in the search, but she was never found. That was not long before her first birthday. He did not stop searching for fifteen years, he searched the world till he was utterly exhausted, and found himself here.
Tonight as he sat and held his head the rusty hands on the old clock turned over midnight. He looked up, and then took a tall bottle and a short glass from out the cupboard at his knees, filling it only enough for one sip. He held the glass up and looked from screen to screen, from the cloudy skies that hid uncertain stars to the feed from distant satellites and the camera footage of the docking bays on the Urchin itself.
‘Happy birthday Ava my girl,’ he toasted and quickly downed the draught, ‘happy birthday.’