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 CW Hawes‘ excellent post in his series entitled: The Wonderful Machine Age. After the brilliant Alice E. Keyes left a comment about writing a flash fiction story (check Alice’s blog at Primordial Soup), 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 which mirrored the blue sky above. Oceans, deep and dark, with waves of green and blue cascading against fertile shores. Life teemed within the cool waters, just as it once did 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. Then one became two. Then it became a drought.
The world waited, until eventually, people 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 carried 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 the plains and the 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 quiet. 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 shrivelled 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 life and sustenance to those dwelling amidst the steel and rock walls. What animals could be brought in and stocked were kept on underground farms warmed and cooled alike by those that kept the machine’s furnaces burning day and night. Those animals considered too dangerous or too large were left to fend for themselves. These would forlornly follow the water as it receded, predator and prey no longer having any meaning as they struggled to survive until, eventually, they all joined the dust.
Those refused entry to the A.R.C.’s were forced to fend for themselves. The sick and the elderly died quickly. The rest turned upon each other as society broke down and eventually collapsed. Anarchy reigned over the world’s cities and death walked unchecked. Those that survived the cities banded together and fled back into the caves that we had once crawled out of millennia ago. Deep they went, into the dark earth to escape from the sun’s heat. Some found underground lakes to sustain them. For a time at least.
The oceans were the last to die, but eventually even they disappeared, leaving 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 still, watching and waiting.
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 rock ran in molten rivers. Flame and heat consumed the world as it rumbled and shook; the agonised death throes of a wounded beast, desperate to yet live.
It was in those final days that we found Hope.
Resting upon the cracked plain that had once been beneath the Atlantic, somewhere close to the desolation that had been Miami, a vessel was discovered; the like of which none had seen before. All that remained of its rusted bones 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 one built to traverse the seas. Projecting from the hull on both sides were exhaust pipes of a peculiar fashion, 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 dismantled by myself and my colleagues before being transported to the A.R.C. where I had been stationed. There, learned folk poured over its mysteries in search of an answer, even though the question itself was 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 spelled out a single word: H-0P-3.
It was I that found the book. We don’t know how long the vessel had lain beneath the waves, or when it had flown, but the metallic black box that we recovered from within the skeletal hull had protected its secrets against the sea and time itself.
When I first saw the book I knew that it was important. I could have made this known, but I didn’t. I took the book for myself, although 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 plates still bore the pictographs that had been so carefully stamped and punched by the people that had bound it.
I was young when I first felt its weight in my hands. Now, I am old, or old compared to those that still live here 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 a civilisation, an age, that existed long before. Like this, the rains stopped, but for those people in that time, the clouds disappeared entirely. The people of that age had possessed the foresight to understand the danger that would come. They built great machines – clouds – to replace those that had vanished. These clouds, built with cog, spring, and wheel, were massive environmental processors; capable of recycling and purifying the water of the planet and spreading it across the world. Magnificent engines that deflected the powerful rays of the life-giving sun. Thunder and lightning, the movement of gears and static that enabled the release of water to sustain and replenish the world.
But, as with all things, they must be powered. Our shells built of flesh, blood and bone, are driven by the engine that is the heart. The clouds, in turn, were powered by their own heart, 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 found was one of many such aircraft 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 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 great clocks were maintained by the Olmec, but with their fall, the knowledge was lost or misinterpreted. Later civilisations, including our own, would ignore the clock as it continually counted down. 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 not revealed this knowledge. The hope that we cling to sustains us. I fear what would become of us should I reveal the truth.
There are so few of us left. The A.R.C. is failing. We all know this, but we do nothing except wait. Resources grow scarce and our population ages with so few children to replace the dead. We cannot maintain the engines. Eventually, there will be none to carry on the work.
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 while, 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.