So… I haven’t done one of these for quite a few years.
That’s a lie.
What I meant to say is… I’ve not posted something that remains so largely raw and untouched (freshly cut from the imagination) and handed it over for public consumption.
I wrote this last night and glanced at it again earlier this morning over a cup of tea. I wanted to post it now so that it didn’t get lost in the next few posts that will be shuffling into view very shortly with the release of my new book.
The idea for the story grew after reading an excellent post by prolific author, CW Hawes, in his series entitled: The Wonderful Machine Age. After the equally brilliant Alice E. Keyes left a comment about writing a flash-fiction story, the gears in my brain started churning with an idea of my own. It just so happened that when I looked out of the window I happened to see a cloud drifting by on its way to Tangier.
What follows is not a story.
That may be a lie.
White dreams floating high
Life-bearing hope sustaining
Now forever gone
The world was different once.
There were green trees and clear rivers. Lakes mirrored the blue sky above while oceans, deep and dark, with waves of green and blue, cascaded against fertile shores. Life once teemed within these waters, just as it had done within the jungles and forests.
Now that is all gone.
No one can say for sure when the rains first stopped. It began the same as it always had; a dry spell. It was supposed to last a few days, maybe a fortnight at best. Then the fortnight stretched into a month. One month became two. Then it became a drought.
People around the world waited until, eventually, they knew that the rain would fall no more. Clouds that had once carried life-giving water began to act erratically, drifting against the wind… or perhaps it was that the wind no longer bore them?
Six months after the rains had stopped, strange sounds could be heard echoing across the skies. At first, people thought it was the wind, moaning across barren plains and quiet mountains, through the glass and steel jungles that once dominated the coasts and mainlands. Some said that the sounds were the cries of whales echoing against the sky; a warning, perhaps, of what was to come. Others said it was the clouds dying.
Two months later, the sky fell silent, and the people looked up, curious at the sudden calm. It was the first time that anyone noticed.
The clouds had stopped.
No one knew why they had stopped, just as they did not know why the rains no longer fell. The ice caps melted, and sea levels rose, causing panic and destruction around the world.
Gradually, streams disappeared, and then the rivers dried up. Deep-reaching lakes grew shallow and then vanished. The land withered and died until all that remained were empty husks blowing on a scorched wind. Those that were chosen fled inland to the A.R.C. bunkers. Once built for war, these massive underground domes were restructured to house the most valued amongst the world’s population. There, clouds of steam, produced by purpose-built machines, provided a semblance of life and sustenance to those dwelling beneath the steel and concrete walls. What animals could be brought in and stocked were kept on underground farms warmed and cooled alike by great furnaces kept burning, day and night. Those animals considered too dangerous or too large were left to fend for themselves, forlornly following the water as it receded. Predator and prey no longer had any meaning as both struggled to survive until, inevitably, they all joined the dust.
Those people that were refused entry to the A.R.C.’s were also forced to fend for themselves. The sick and the elderly died quickly. The rest turned upon one other as society inevitably broke down and collapsed. Anarchy reigned over the world’s cities. Death walked unchecked. Those that survived the towns and cities banded together and fled back into the caves that we had once crawled out of millennia ago. Deep they went, down into the dark earth, to escape from the sun’s blistering heat. Some found underground lakes to sustain them. For a time, at least.
The oceans were the last to die, but ultimately, even they disappeared, leaving behind vast valleys and breathtaking mountains, reshaping the face of the world into something barren and scarred. If any water existed, it lay at the bottom of abyssal canyons where none might hope to reach. And above them, the clouds remained silent and still.
The bleached bones of ocean-dwelling leviathans lay beached upon ragged precipices, their cliffs tumbling into the depths of the earth where fire raged and molten rivers did flow. Flame and heat consumed the world as it rumbled and shook, the agonised death throes of a wounded beast, desperate to still yet live.
It was in those final days that we found ‘Hope’.
Resting on a fractured expanse of earth, beneath what had once been the Atlantic ocean was a vessel, the like of which none had seen before. All that remained of its rusted limbs suggested it had once flown through the skies. The fabric that may once have stretched between its crippled struts long gone, but its spines appearing very much like the wing bones of a bird.
Its bulk was that of a ship, perhaps one of the old sailing vessels our ancestors had built to traverse the seas. Projecting from the hull on both sides were exhaust pipes of a peculiar fashion. Each was covered by rusted frames coated with a strange, malleable, material which lent to the suggestion of a floatation or stabilisation device.
The peculiar vessel was painstakingly dismantled by myself and several of my colleagues. The resulting containers were then transported, one by one, to the A.R.C. where I had been stationed. There, learned folk poured over its mysteries, searching for answers, even though the questions themselves were unknown. A designation pattern was discovered, stamped into the decaying hull. Most of it had been destroyed or made illegible, but the characters that survived spelt out a single word: H-0P-3.
We don’t know how long the vessel had lain beneath the waves or even when it had flown. Undeterred by the decay and the frustrations of those wiser than myself, I desperately sought answers of my own. My determination was eventually rewarded in the discovery of a metallic black container secured deep within the skeletal hull. The container had protected its secrets against both sea and time itself, but I was eventually able to open it. And there within, I found the book.
When I first set eyes upon it, I knew that it was of crucial significance. I should have made this known, but I didn’t. I took the book for myself, although, at the time, I knew not why. It was as if the finely pressed golden plates spoke to me and me alone. Despite the ravages of time, the metallic plates still bore pictographs, carefully stamped and punched by the people that had first bound it.
I was young when I first felt its weight in my hands. Now, I am old, or at least old compared to those that still live here, deep beneath the ground. In all these years, I have only just scratched the surface. Much of the book remains a mystery to me, but this I do know.
The book is a manual.
Piece by piece, I put together a history of an ancient civilisation, of an age that existed long before. For them, as for us, the rains had stopped. Unlike our own time, however, the clouds had disappeared entirely. The people of that forgotten age had possessed the foresight to understand the danger that would come. So they built great machines – clouds – to replace those that had vanished. These clouds, magnificent engines constructed with cog, spring, and wheel, deflected the powerful rays of the life-giving sun. They were massive environmental processors; the movement of gears was our thunder, the static they generated our lightning. The ingenious engines could recycle and purify our world’s water and distribute it across the planet.
But, as with all things, they must be powered. Our own mortal shells, built of flesh, blood and bone, are driven by their own engines: the heart. The clouds, in turn, were powered by their own, a battery powerful enough to last for millennia. Yet, just as our own hearts are wont to tire and die, so too did the batteries that worked tirelessly within the clouds.
The manual revealed how the vessel we had discovered was one of several such craft, built as service stations to enable the replacement of the batteries. Engineers, rising up amongst the clouds, would work to ensure their continuation. Clocks were designed to remind them, and those of later generations, of the ‘Ritual of Replacement’. These clocks were maintained or rebuilt throughout the ages as new civilisations rose and fell. The last of these extraordinary clocks were maintained by the Olmec. Still, the vital knowledge of their construct was lost or misinterpreted with their decline. Later civilisations, including our own, would ignore the clock as it counted down the years, hours, and minutes of our fate. The signs were always there, but we cared not to look. Our ignorance led us along the path to where we now find ourselves.
I have chosen not to reveal this knowledge. The hope that we cling to sustains us. I fear what would become of us should the truth ever be known.
There are so few of us left. The A.R.C. is failing. We all know this, but we do nothing except sit and wait for the inevitable. Resources grow scarce, and our population ages with so few children to replace the dead. With so few of us left, we cannot efficiently maintain the engines within our sanctuaries of steel and concrete. Eventually, there will be none to carry on the work, and our shelters shall become our tombs.
At night, I climb through the old steam tunnels to the surface. There I sit upon the sun-baked earth, looking up at the sky and the motionless clouds above. I reach up and hold them in my hand, wishing that they were so close. Sometimes, I like to think I hear a whirring, like a clock trying to restart, but it is just my imagination weaving the wind into the ghosts of the past. Then I lie back and close my eyes, just for a little, and slow my breathing to join the laboured rhythm of the world beneath me.
And sometimes, I dream of white clouds drifting across a blue sky.– Crispian Thurlborn, “Clouds” (2015)