I am now over half way through writing 'News from the Clouds' and I want to share a chapter with you.
I'm really enjoying the process of bashing this book into shape but of course it's a slog.
I keep going back and changing things, rewriting chapters and throwing stuff out but I'm getting there.
News from the Clouds tells the story of how the human race survives the most disruptive version of extreme weather and climate change.
In News from Gardenia Gavin Meckler, the hero of the three News from stories experiences a world much warmer than ours but where the human response to the probem facing us has been beneficial.
Likewise in News from the Squares, temperatures and sea levels have risen considerably but the planet is still essentially a habitable place.
In News from the Clouds the situation is almost untenable, the population have resorted to partly living on Clouds, huge lighter than air structures that float with the winds rather than battling them.
The rest of the time they live in enormous glorified ditches or culverts.
Chapter 13, pasted below, takes place when Gavin experiences his first taste of life at ground level since arriving on the Clouds.
I have a powerful memory of watching ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ when I was about 12. My dad had a VHS copy of the film and it was a big treat one winter Sunday afternoon to sit in front of the telly and watch a proper film with no advertising breaks.
For some reason the early scene where the rebels close the outer doors on the ice planet Hoth had a lasting emotional impact on me.
‘Close the outer doors’ shouted someone dressed in an orange jump suit. People ran about getting ready for the outer doors to close because nighttime temperatures on Hoth were not to be messed with.
Luke was still out in the icy wastes, he was going to die! Thankfully before he did Han Solo found him, used his light sabre to cut open the belly of the dead Tauntaun and then stuffed Luke’s half frozen body into it’s stinking stomach cavity to keep warm. That was also a moment burned into my memory.
However I never wanted to be Luke or Hans, I wanted to be one of the rebel technicians behind the closed outer doors. They knew you had to close those outer doors before the freezing storm killed everyone, they understood things and knew what to do.
During the afternoon of my first day in the Chicago Culvert a very similar scene was played out in a very frightening and real way. It was nothing short of spooky, almost as if there had been some kind of subconscious meta memory leaking back into the mind of George Lucas in the 1980’s.
Megumi and a few of the other commissioners took Theda and I through a maze of dark corridors, down a couple of flights of steps that I would guess from the sound our feet made on them were made of some kind of carbon composite material and into a large hangar area.
As we stood looking around this vast hall Megumi explained that we were actually under what they called the outer abutment, the giant tiled mountain range I’d seen from Cloud Ten.
On one side of this enormous space was an opening to the outside world and what I saw through that opening was distressing.
A sun bleached blasted rock desert for as far as I could see, which due to the deep blue sky and clear air was quite a long way. Not a trace of vegetation, no hint of a man made structure, just a great open expanse of rubble going on for ever. The sky above seemed clear and blue, it wasn’t cold like the ice planet Hoth, in fact the wind blowing in through the wide doorway was hot, dry and unpleasant.
There was so much going on it was impossible for me to take it all in, although very few people were in the space it was still incredibly busy. Machines, walking machines were going in and out of the doorway non stop. These multi legged robots, most about the size of small cars didn’t have some bloke dressed in orange overalls driving them, they were sleek efficient and clearly fully autonomous machines. The ones passing me by as I stood in the wide entrance were carrying enormous piles of some very smooth black sheet material on their flat backs.
‘Do not fear them.’ Said Megumi. ‘They are aware of your presence, they will not harm you but it’s best we leave them to get on with their vital tasks. They have to work very fast.’
We stood at one side of the entrance as I stared slack jawed at the mechanical mayhem going on around me. The bots kept their distance, skirting around us as we stepped onto the broken ground just outside the culvert. Here the wind was hot, dry and very strong.
‘It is best we go no further than this.’ Said Megumi, ‘we may need to return at any moment, the weather patterns are highly unstable.’
I nodded my understanding, the noise around us was intense, but even from this sheltered vantage point I could assess the true scale of the structure I had been in.
All I could see in either direction was a massive man-made mountain of black plates or tiles disappeared into the distance. In the far haze I could see machines working but other than us, no signs of human life.
All along the culvert protection abutment, multi legged robots too numerous to count were busy clearing rubble from the lower areas by picking it up piece by piece with their numerous arm type appendages and flinging it many tens of meters away.
The piles they were creating were then being crushed flat by large autonomous tracked machines fitted with enormous back hoe digging arms. They also had some kind of spray attachment fitted to the rear of the machine which dispensed a thick grey goo over the rubble. It was guesswork on my part but I assumed this was to secure loose particles that would otherwise be picked up by the wind causing damage to the outer walls.
These activities were noisy and to my human eye utterly chaotic, they made no sense to me. It seemed like a pointless activity, they weren’t making anything or if they were, it just looked like a mess, like an endless quarry which produced nothing. These weren’t mining machines that much was obvious, they weren’t extracting ore, they just seemed to be expending huge amounts of energy pointlessly moving stuff about.
Megumi pointed to an area above us and to our right. I spotted a cluster of multi legged machines busy replacing a large area of black tiles. I say tiles, they were each the size of a double bed but because the wall before me was so vast, when in place they looked like tiny mosaic tiles.
‘We had a severe impact up there during the last storm so we have to repair it before the next.’ She shouted. ‘The bots work whenever the wind is low enough for them to carry out the task.’
‘It seems fairly windy at the moment.’ I shouted as the air thundered around us.
Megumi smiled. ‘Gavin, believe me, this is a calm day.’
Theda was busy talking to one of the other commissioners in German so I couldn’t follow what they were talking about but I could tell it was an explanation of some sort, they did a lot of pointing and nodding.
I turned back to Megumi, something she said when we ate our rather plain vegetarian lunch had concerned me.
‘Megumi, what was that term you used when we were eating? You welcomed me to something, you used a word I don’t know.’
‘You’ve never heard that term?’
‘No, what does it mean?’
’This.’ Said Megumi spreading her small arms wide, ‘is the anthropocene.’ She held the pose for a while, I suppose for dramatic impact although that kind of thing is usually lost on me. I was looking at a diminutive Japanese woman standing on a dusty rock strewn vista with a hot wind blowing around her.
‘So what are you telling me, this state of affairs is caused by us?’
‘Sadly that is correct. We have had to adapt to it, it’s not been easy but we are getting better at it.’
I stared out at the bleak landscape before me trying to understand. It was hopeless.
‘Every time I have to think about this my brain goes mushy. I said eventually. In the world Theda comes from, I don’t know what it’s called but in that world, the weather had changed from my time, I mean it was a lot hotter in London than it had been back in 2011 but it wasn’t like this. And in Gardenia it was hotter but again, it was green, with trees and farms and clean rivers. If this is the same world I come from, what the hell happened here?’
‘It’s very complicated.’ Said Megumi with a kind smile. ‘The temperature here is about 12 degrees centigrade hotter than 200 years ago, and about 6 degrees hotter than in the cities of the squares or Gardenia. We have no polar ice caps, there is no longer a temperate region. What you would have known as the tropics is now a swathe of uninhabitable desert or very warm and highly acidic oceans. In the deserts even culvert communities cannot survive because of the intense heat. Our weather has become very extreme and very violent. We are making progress to control the global climate but out is going to take many generations before we start to see a change. We are surviving, that is the important thing. We are surviving.’
Suddenly above the din of the machines and the roaring wind in my ears I heard a series of high pitched bleeps.
‘We must retire immediately.’ Said Megumi grabbing my sleeve and pulling me back into the entrance. ‘The outer doors will soon be closing.’
Yes, it was the scene from the Empire Strikes Back, the outer doors would be closing, the night was coming or in this case I guessed a storm was coming.
We stumbled across the broken ground as machines ran past us in serried ranks, the noise was overwhelming, the high pitched beeps were a constant and painful reminder that something bad was happening. All around me dozens of low, fast moving walking machines were funnelling into the dark interior of the Culvert. I glanced behind me as we entered, on the distant horizon what looked like a huge brown wall, it was fairly obvious this was a sand storm, or maybe a better description would be a rock storm of gargantuan proportions. It filled the horizon and the horizon was very wide, I must have been able to see hundreds of miles as there was nothing on the ground above ankle height.
Just before I entered the structure I glanced up and caught a glimpse of what must have been Cloud Ten, it was already thousands of meters in the air but it still looked huge, a vast white ball of cloud. It really did look like a thunder cloud from this point, if I hadn’t know what it was I don’t think it would have immediately registered as a man made object.
‘Come, we have no time.’ Said Megumi with some alarm in her voice. ‘We are in danger.’
As we passed the threshold Megumi pulled me to one side, I noticed a pink line painted on the smooth concrete floor which ran around one side of the space.
‘You are safe here.’ She said. ‘You will enjoy seeing the bots pack away.’
Although at that moment I didn’t know what she meant when I understood I did indeed enjoy it.
Many hundreds of these bizarrely animal like multi legged walking machines entered the space and formed neat rows on one side of the hall. They rapidly folded their legs away and closed themselves down. They could store themselves so closely that once they had settled they just formed a solid block of seamless machinery.
As soon as one layer was complete the next row of machines climbed on top and did likewise until, after a few moments all I could see was a dark wall, hundreds of machines fitted together beautifully.
Once this wall reached the height of the stone ceiling another one started. Within about 4 minutes the entire space, empty when I’d first seen it, was packed solid with now silent machines.
The noise increased further as a truly gargantuan door started to slide down into the wide entranceway from above, it had to be ten meters thick and the mechanics controlling this leviathan of closure devices rumbled and squeaked. With a nerve jangling thump it finally stopped and my ears were ringing with the sudden silence. The siren beep stopped and everything was still.
‘Well, you had everything there.’ Said Megumi. ‘You got to see the repair bots at work and you got to witness a storm closedown. The perfect end to the perfect tour is it not?’
‘I s'pose so.’ I offered. ‘But I saw some kind of storm front that looked like it was miles away, surely we had a bit more time, I’d like to have seen it.’
Another discreet smile from Megumi confirmed that my grasp of the elements of this world was slight. ‘The storms approach very fast, it will still be over a hundred kilometres away but it’ll hit the abutments in the next few minutes.’
I think my silence at this appalling piece of information signified that I was impressed.
‘But now.’ Said Megumi. ‘We have to vacate the machine hall as it will be pressurised to help support the door, we would not survive if we stayed in here.’
I followed Theda and the other commissioners as they made their way around the now solid wall of repair bots and back into the long corridor. As we moved along I became aware of a low thundering noise.
‘I take it we are hearing the storm.’ Said Theda. Megumi merely nodded and we walked in silence as the distant rumble intensified.
After a considerable walk along endless low lit passages, Megumi showed us into a small, dimly lit spartan space.
‘This is our last available guest apartment.’ She said. ‘We are very full at the moment, I’m afraid it is fairly basic but has all the essential amenities.’
She walked across the space and lights came on all around her, it wasn’t that bad but again it had a very bare and had a slightly military bunker feel about it.
‘Washroom in there.’ She said pointing to a narrow doorway in the far wall. ‘And sleeping pods on either side. You may wish to freshen up before we convene later today, we have much to ask and much to explain.’
‘Thank you.’ Said Theda.
‘Oh, yeah, thanks.’ I said, not entirely sure what I was thanking her for.
Megumi made an almost imperceptible bow and left the room.
‘Wow.’ Said Theda.
‘Yeah.’ I agreed. We stood listening to the distant thundering for a moment. I couldn’t be sure but it did feel like the whole structure was vibrating.
‘Are you sure that’s wind, it could be machinery, you know, air conditioning or something.’ I said.
Theda shook her head. ‘No Gavin, that is a wind the like of which we cannot imagine.’
‘I’d really like to see it.’
‘That is not possible, if you were exposed to the exterior even for a second you would be blown away and torn to shreds by flying debris. You saw those carbon ceramic plates the machines were fixing, they are ten centimetres thick, they are made of the strongest material available and they still shatter. The impacts from debris is awesome.’
‘But aren’t there any windows we can look out from?’
‘Gavin, there is no transparent material strong enough to withstand the constant bombardment’ said Theda as if explaining to a child why you can’t stand in the middle of a busy motorway. ‘The only safe place during a storm is either in a culvert or on a cloud. The climate here is nothing short of lethal.’
I sat down on a hard chair that was built into one wall of the room, there was nothing soft or comfortable available.
‘I’m not going to pretend I understand what’s happened here, are we on earth? I mean the same planet I was born on. It feels like we’re in some other universe.’
‘Well, we are in another dimension, but this is the same earth, the same planet at the same position in the galaxy and at the same time as the squares of London you have just come from, however it is very different in many other respects. Maybe if we both just sit calmly for a while you can absorb some of what I have learned since I’ve been here.’
‘You mean, through the kidonge?’ I asked.
Theda nodded and sat on the opposite side of the room, her head upright but her eyes closed. She took a deep breath.
‘Just try to relax.’ She said.
‘But what about your name?’
‘Just relax, you will understand.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me your name was Meckler.’
Theda didn’t answer, she sat motionless. After an agonising and frankly annoying silence she said very quietly. ‘Relax.’
Her suggestion was about as much use as asking a 5 year old boy to relax after he’s eaten a tube of highly coloured sweets and drunk a couple of cans of fizzy pop.
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