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The third story in my Black Swan series, “Flight” (previously titled “Pilot Light”) has been published in issue #43 of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. You can read it for free here – download the PDF, Kindle, whatever floats your boat.
This brings an end to the run of Black Swan series I originally published here at Grub Street, but I have plenty more in the pipeline, and hopefully the good men at TQF will be kind enough to keep accepting them.
Happy New Year! As of January 1, I have two more short stories published and freely available to read online. The first, West Gate, can be found in Allegory. The second, Cottesloe Beach, is in The Waterhouse Review.
These two stories are the first I’ve ever been paid for, even if it is a small amount, and I’m very grateful to editors Ty Drago and Gavin Broom for finding my work good enough to compensate with legal tender. It’s a nice way to begin 2013, and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll find myself higher in the Google rankings than the South Carolina sex offender who shares my name.
The second story in my Black Swan series, Drydock, has just been published in the newly released Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #42. TQF has switched to an Amazon/Kindle distribution model, but the magazine is free for the first five days after release, so if you have a Kindle grab a copy now.
Hello, faithful reader! My short story “The City” is being published in the Autumn 2011 edition of online fiction magazine The Battered Suitcase. You can read it here for free online, or shell out a few dollars to download it to Kindle or iPad or whatever the kids are doing these days, or spend a few dollars more to order a print copy. Naturally this volume contains not just my own tale of amazement and delight, but those of many other writers.
This is the first short story I’ve had published in any kind of official capacity, which is a significant milestone for any writer. Unfortunately it’s also the last issue of the magazine, which can be traced directly back to you for not supporting the independent arts scene in the past. Shame, shame, shame.
I first started writing “The City” when I was living in Seoul, which was more than two years ago. It was accepted for publication in November 2010, which was nearly a year ago. I think I need to either start writing more stories, or ignore simultaneous submission prohibitions.
On Writing by Stephen King (2000) 297 p.
Say what you will about Stephen King’s fiction, but in all his non-fiction – his forewords, his introductions, his EW column and this book – he’s refreshingly honest, down-to-earth and easily readable. On Writing is part memoir and part writing guide, written as King was entering his fourth decade of being an author (and, if I’m not mistaken, had only recently been unseated by J.K. Rowling as the world’s most popular author).
On Writing begins with about a hundred pages of vignettes across King’s life, beginning with his earlist memory and ending with him kicking his drug addiction in the 1980s. It moves on to a central section full of King’s thoughts about writing (theme, plot, characters, dialogue etc) and advice on how to become a writer, and finishes with a section about his near-fatal 1999 car accident (painful even to read about, particularly since he chose to weave it into The Dark Tower series). One of the most interesting things throughout is his little thoughts on all kinds of things related to the trade: genre prejudice, the reliability of agents, anecdotes about writing at Rudyard Kipling’s desk, and so on.
King said he was aiming to write a book on writing without any bullshit, and I think he succeeded. He makes it quite clear throughout the book that there is no magic solution or bag of tricks to being a writer. You just have to work very hard. You have to write a lot and read a lot, and there’s no getting around that. Creative writing classes and writing guides (including On Writing) may help a little, but nothing will get you there in the end except hard work. Lazy people won’t be writers (which I shirk from hearing, since I’m very lazy indeed).
He also shoots down a common myth in the creative writing world – something that’s almost taboo, in fact – which is that a bad writer can ever become a good writer, or that a good writer can ever become a great writer. A mediocre writer can become a good writer, but other than that, you either got it or you don’t.
It only took me a couple of days to breeze through, since Stephen King (being Stephen King) is quite easy to read:
Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn’t they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.
A refreshing change after the Byzantine prose of Kim.
Whether you’re a Stephen King fan, or an aspiring writer, this book is definitely worth a read. Roger Ebert (one of the greatest writers in modern America) called it the best book on writing since Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which I’ll also have to get around to reading someday.
(Removed for publication)
December 2009 marks five years that I’ve been writing End Times, the foundering ship which I am riding all the way to the ocean floor. I began writing the first entries in December 2004, and publishing them online in real-time format on January 1, 2005. The real-time format lasted for about three months before inevitably slipping away from me, and now I’m staring at my stranded characters across an ever-widening fissure of time.
I posted a new entry a few minutes ago, and given my track record, we all know it’s the last one I’ll be posting in 2009. This was an entry for October 10. The first entry I published in 2009 was for October 1. Some days have more than one entry, so that’s a total of fifteen, which is still abysmally low.
The reason I don’t post nearly as frequently as I used to is, shock horror, because I don’t enjoy writing End Times anymore. When I started it (in high school!) I had no idea where it would lead. A few other people were writing apocalyptic journals online and I thought it looked like a bit of a lark, so I figured I’d write one myself until I got bored with it. It proved to be quite popular, with – at its peak – maybe twenty or thirty regular readers. That made me feel good, and encouraged me, and I kept going.
Somewhere along the way I began to gradually lose interest in it. I have no idea where in the five-year saga that happened. The result was that I posted less frequently and that there was (in my opinion) a noticeable decline in the quality of writing. As a result less people read it, which meant I had less incentive to write it, and with that the negative feedback loop was up and running. And now we come to the close of a year in which I posted, on average, once every 24 days – a span far too long to keep all but the most devoted reader’s attention. Even assuming I were to post more frequently, and only have an entry for every couple of days of storyline time, that would mean an optimistic finish date of late 2012.
I do have an outline for the rest of the story. I know how the rest of October plays out, I know what will happen in November and December, and I know how it’s going to finish. The only thing preventing all this from happening is my deep loathing of actually sitting down and doing it.
Here’s the kicker: I don’t really have much of a desire to write anything these days. There was a time when I felt obligated to write End Times before anything else, so that it was holding me back from other projects; there was a time when I had abandoned that notion and worked quite often on other projects; and now there is a time when I have dozens of ideas for novels and short stories floating around in my head, and this enormous barnacle-encrusted leviathan sitting unfinished on Livejournal, and yet I devote less than a couple of hours every few weeks to working on any of them at all.
That worries me. Writing is pretty much the only thing I’m good at. Why don’t I want to do it?
The best explanation I can offer is that perhaps, in my early twenties, I’m in the period most writers spend actually exploring the world. Explaining it and telling stories about it comes later – though no doubt they spend these years constantly writing anyway, even if none of it comes to fruition.
I do write, though – I write a lot of book reviews, and when I go abroad I keep travelogues. Who says I have to write fiction? Apart from the fact that I want to be a fiction writer.
That’s the thing, really. I’ve become one of those writers for whom the actual writing is an unfortunate and unpleasant step on the way to the accomplishment of having written.
I didn’t always used to feel like that. I used to love it. I used to get excited when I was writing End Times, when I was pounding through a particularly action-packed entry and the words were flowing like water. Now… nothing. The most recent entry is quite eventful. But I felt nothing writing it.
Am I over the whole idea of swashbuckling boy’s adventure stories? Do I want to write something more mature?
I don’t think I can. If I’m really lucky, I might have it in me to be another Stephen King. But I will never be another David Mitchell or Michael Chabon.
I’m starting to ramble and it’s getting late, so I’ll finish with the same topic I started: I have been writing End Times for five years now. While I may compare it to a stinking albatross hanging around my neck, I do not regret it. It has been an interesting experiment, an absolutely epic work of fiction, and regardless of its dubious quality as a piece of literature I will feel quite accomplished when I finally finish it. And I do still intend to finish it, even if nobody wants to read it and I don’t want to write it, because I am an exceptionally stubborn person. I am a person who read the entirety of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, who watched an entire season of 24 in a single sitting, who spent months longer than he had to working at a hellish kindergarden in South Korea. Partly because I feel that I owe it to the few remaining readers, and partly because I have come too fucking far to give up on it now, I WILL FINISH THAT DAMNED NOVEL OR DIE TRYING.
“Homecoming” can be read for free online in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #40.
Matthew Reilly published his first novel when he was 22.
Terry Pratchett published his first novel when he was 23.
Michael Crichton published his first novel when he was 24.
Michael Chabon published his first novel when he was 25.
Neal Stephenson published his first novel when he was 25.
Philip Pullman published his first novel when he was 26.
Stephen King published his first novel when he was 26.
Philip K. Dick published his first novel when he was 27.
Ernest Hemingway published his first novel when he was 27.
Kazuo Ishiguro published his first novel when he was 28.
Joel Rosenberg published his first novel when he was 29.
Arthur C. Clarke published his first novel when he was 30.
Margaret Atwood published her first novel when she was 30.
David Mitchell published his first novel when he was 30.
Cormac McCarthy published his first novel when he was 32.
Philip Reeve published his first novel when he was 35.
William Gibson published his first novel when he was 36.
Ursula le Guin published her first novel when she was 37.
Robert Heinlein published his first novel when he was 40.
Susanna Clarke published her first novel when she was 45.
My final creative writing assignment, a short story of about nine thousand words. It’s an indirect sequel/prequel to The Planet’s Corpse, so if you haven’t read that already I suggest you do. Then report back here. Aren’t we having fun!
* * *
I was born on the 9th of Libra, 248. I am one hundred and eighteen years old and, at last count, the seventeenth oldest person in the system and the sixth oldest person born on Earth.
With every passing year my birthplace becomes more fascinating to people. It was very different when I first arrived here, when I was just a single soul among millions displaced by the Exodus. Back then, more than half the Martian population had been born on Earth, though most were immigrants from the mineral boom. Very few of them were Exodus refugees, and an even smaller amount were like me: traumatised, bewildered and incredibly lucky people who had been on Earth right up until the outbreak of the war and only managed to scramble to safety at the last second.
The trigger for the war was most certainly the eruption. Many modern historians argue that Earth was spiralling towards disaster one way or another, that it was already a world in crisis when the eruption occurred, but take it from somebody who was there: absolutely nothing changed the course of history quite like that. I simply woke up one morning to find that what the media dubbed a “supervolcano,” lurking beneath the Himalayas, had blown apart and killed tens of millions of people in India and Tibet.
It happened on August 6, 2094. I was fifteen years old. I skipped school that day, sitting at home with my family, all of us entranced by the minute-by-minute coverage. We watched footage of pyroclastic flows sweeping down into the Ganges river valley with frightening speed, wiping away trees and bridges and buildings. We saw satellite imagery of a swelling dark blotch over the subcontinent, twisting and expanding like an evil cyclone. Dehli and Islamabad and Kathmandu had been wiped off the map. In Beijing, in Singapore, in Dubai, ugly yellow sulphur and grey fumes blotted out the sun. My brother and I watched it as though it was just another exciting movie, while our parents exchanged grave looks behind us. “Don’t worry,” I remember my mother saying soothingly to my five-year old sister when she crawled into her lap, frightened and upset. “It’s on the other side of the world. Far away. It can’t hurt us.” But when the sun rose over our town the next day, it was with a dirty brown tinge. Krakatoa was nothing compared to the supervolcano.
The death toll from the eruption itself is impossible to calculate, as it is so overlapped with the events of the next few years, but modern estimates put it at nearly a billion. The Himalayan plateau was all but obliterated, and the surrounding nations suffered greatly from poisonous fumes, from agricultural failure in the unnatural darkness, from economic and social collapse. Asia was not a good place to be. China invaded and occupied Siberia in October. (I recall grainy footage of soldiers in gas masks pillaging rural villages, flecks of ash constantly wiped away from the camera lens by a gloved hand). Europe, inundated with refugees, soon closed her borders and guarded them with unrestrained military force. (I am sure you have seen the famous photograph of the MV Salaam, an Egyptian ferry torpedoed by the Hellenic Navy, children floundering and drowning in the wreckage). The United States, which for decades had been held together with red tape, propaganda and compulsory military service, began to fragment as California seceded, Canada reclaimed the North-West, and the government suspended elections indefinitely. (That immortal day in November: the Patriot Guard dispersing protesters in the National Mall, clouds of tear gas rising above the Capitol Dome, bodies lying in the streets among the abandoned placards and broken bottles, half-finished slogans spraypainted across Lincoln’s statue).
Against this backdrop of death, war and disorder, the Exodus had begun. Over the next five years and four months, more than one hundred million human beings would flee the Earth.
You may be surprised to know that leaving Earth was not on everybody’s mind. It is easy to look back with perfect hindsight, to assume that the last few years of the 21st century became a panicked rush to escape. But we had no idea what was coming. We assumed the atmosphere would clear itself of the ash and dust eventually (every day I rode my bike to school with a cloth wrapped around my mouth, the sun veiled and cold), that the wars and conflicts would sort themselves out, that life would go on as before. Leaving the planet was a popular option, but was by no means considered essential to survival. It was merely an adventurous investment into a better life, just as the pioneers of the eighteenth century had crossed the Atlantic to start over again in the virgin wilderness of North America. Nobody could look at the images from Mars, of the happy domed biomes, of the flourishing cities with their parks and rivers, and not feel a twinge of jealousy. They were also building such habitats on Earth, of course, underground sanctuaries that recreated not only pre-eruption conditions but pre-Industrial Revolution conditions: clean air, sparkling rivers, a happy hologram of a flawless blue sky. But Earth’s biomes were the exclusive domain of the upper tax bracket. Mars, on the other hand, was an exciting frontier where everybody lived in these beautifully modelled environments, where there was plenty of work, where a terraformed surface was just around the corner, ushering in a glorious future for all.
At least, that was the view that government and corporate propaganda encouraged, with happy Martian families waving out at us poor dying Terrans from every billboard, flash ad and bus flank we walked past. But it was common knowledge that conditions on Mars weren’t quite so rosy: refugee workers living in terrible conditions, UN security police clamping down on human rights, an increasingly violent resistance movement setting off bombs outside public offices. My mother was vehemently against our family emigrating off-world, no doubt because her friend’s son had been working in the uranium mines of Tharsis for five years and sent regular messages home gloomily describing how bad things were. My father dismissed these arguments, pointing out the disturbing turn our own government had taken, scapegoating minority groups and introducing conscription into the military police for all men turning eighteen, shipped off to the civil conflicts in the South Pacific. I spent many late nights with my ear pressed against the door of my father’s study, listening to their arguments slinging back and forth, ready to duck for cover into the stairwell at any minute lest one of them become so angry they should stalk right out of the room. I don’t think I was ever caught eavesdropping. I might be wrong. It was a long time ago.
In any case, my father eventually prevailed, with my mother begrudgingly conceding that I would soon be of military age, and that she had no wish for her eldest son to die in the half-flooded streets of Port Moresby or Suva. I was perfectly happy about this, and not just from my own desire not to be killed by a firebomb hurled by a rioting crowd. I had always been fascinated by space, growing up watching American science fiction shows on Saturday mornings, and as I’d grown older, my interest in shooting aliens in some distant nebula gradually transformed into a passion for engineering and aeronautics. In 2096 I dodged the draft by being accepted into a Commonwealth scholarship at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious on Old Earth, comparable today to Reeve or Marshall. I stood at the international airport with only a single suitcase, nervous and excited, listening to the departure calls for distant and exotic cities. I hugged each member of my family goodbye in turn before walking through the entry gate for the European terminal, my mother’s perfume still lingering in my nostrils, my little sister sitting atop my father’s shoulders and waving farewell with the furious energy of a child. It was the last time I ever saw them in person.
For the first time I flew in a plane. We grazed the upper edges of the atmosphere somewhere over the Indian Ocean, just south of the Maldives elevator. It had been dormant for two years, since the volcanic ejecta had fouled it beyond repair, the cars clinging to it silently like cicada husks on a tree trunk. The cable extended below us through the blurry grey air, and above us into the star-speckled darkness. The Australian businessman sitting next to me snorted at my wide-eyed amazement and ordered another scotch, but I ignored him, pressing my face up against the window and drinking it in. Despite everything that I’ve witnessed in the century between now and then, that motionless elevator cable remains one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. If you went to that spot today, I don’t suppose it would look any different.
We landed at Stansted Airport on September 25, 2096, the same day Sacramento was nuked and the dreams of the Bear State secessionists drifted away on the jetstreams over the Sierra Nevada. England was a different world. There was more ash than I was used to, constantly building up in the street corners like snow, car headlights on at all hours of the day, people with masks on their faces when they stepped outside. Socially, politically, it felt more important. More central. My hometown had been a tiny nook of the planet where nothing but the ash could reach us. In London, however, there were refugees on every street corner, trash piling up in the alleyways, shanty towns in the parks and squares. I saw African children playing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square beneath the granite gaze of Lord Nelson, black-clad riot police pushing protestors away from Downing Street, strange religious cults holding prayer masses in Piccadilly Circus. A few days later I was riding the western maglev, following the muddy grey Thames upriver.
Semester began in October. Oxford was an oasis of calm, with the comforting solidity of age imbued in her gargoyles and echoing halls and antique bookshelves. They were celebrating the university’s thousandth anniversary when I arrived, and the reassurance I had felt when witnessing London’s venerable landmarks was further encouraged. Surely nothing could destroy this great legacy humanity had created, millennia of culture and art and science? Impossible. The Renaissance paintings in the Ashmoleon Museum, the Gutenberg Bible in the library, the stained glass of the Exeter College Chapel… these were unimaginably ancient, and had been through so much before this. I suddenly felt egotistical to assume that it would be my generation that would destroy the world. We had survived worse catastrophes. History was full of crises. The human race would recover.
In the Botanic Gardens, ash swirled and eddied in the wind, mixing with dead leaves around the skeletal trees.
I studied hard. Although I was generally more optimistic than I had been at home, having convinced myself that the human race would pull through yet again, I never relinquished my fundamental desire to fly through space. The more cynical part of me also argued that, perhaps, it might be prudent to watch the human race pull through from an extra-terrestrial vantage point. So I stayed committed to the family plan, speaking with my father at least once a week, organising funds and visas and paperwork. He was employed by Sumitomo, a Japanese transnational with major stakes in the mining industry on Mars. Ever since the eruption he had been using this position to apply for an off-world transfer. But waiting lists were long, and the space elevators could only take so many people per day. “At this point, we’ll be lucky to get there by 2100,” he said grimly on one frigid February morning in my first year, when I was holed up in my dormitory while a dirty grey blizzard screamed at the windowpanes.
“That’s not so far away,” I said, shivering in the cold, pulling my blankets further up around my shoulders. “It’ll be here before we know it.”
How true that turned out to be.
December 2099. The final month of the century. The final month of Earth. I was midway through the third year of my degree at that point, scoring excellent marks, one of the top students in my class. An opportunity arose for accredited field work over the Christmas holidays, on the American space elevator in Ecuador. I signed up immediately, along with a handful of other students who were more eager to gain field experience than to go home for turkey dinners. We boarded a plane on the 18th of December, the day after term ended, streaking south-west across the Atlantic.
Was there a sense of dread in those final days of Earth? Did people speak in sombre tones? Had there been so few applicants for the field trip because other students were desperate to get home to their families? Or do I apply that grave mood retrospectively, after a hundred years of historical dissection, of documentaries and movies and sims and novels? It was so long ago. I may have been there in person, but in the years that followed I was shaped and moulded by the zeitgeist just as easily as anyone else. For many years I was certain that sometime during my first year, I had been watching news of the riots in London sparked by the King’s house arrest, and had heard a fellow student remark: “Wanker never leaves the bloody palace anyway.” It was only recently that I happened to see a screening of the 2145 film Dance Of The Sugar Plums, and was startled to see one of the characters say the exact same line, in exactly the messy student dormitory I supposedly “remembered.” It was a sobering experience – especially since I don’t recall ever having seen the film when it was first released. How many of my memories are real? How many are imposters, absorbed subconsciously over the course of 97 years?
What I do remember, beyond a doubt, is intense media saturation. There were updates every few minutes on whichever hotspot was deemed the most interesting. Russian and Chinese troops clashing in the Ob river basin, burning towns and laying waste to industrial cities. American and European forces squabbling in the orbital realm above our heads, infringing on each other’s defence nets, warning shots, gunboat diplomacy. The perennial clashes between South Asian refugees and locals in Africa and Australia, governments in exile pleading for calm, displaced figureheads of nations that were buried under metres of ash. Even Mars received coverage as an interesting sideshow, where the massive five-year influx of people fleeing the dying Earth was causing trouble with the locals, where incompatible cultures had been thrown together by necessity, where the excessive infringement of freedoms was resulting in riots and curfews and assassinations. I spent the entire four-hour flight to South America scanning the net, reading reports from the BBC and Euronews and GDR. Until the captain announced that we were approaching Simon Bolivar International, I didn’t even realise we were over the continent.
Quito. The capital of Ecuador. Six million people crowded into an Andean valley, spilling out across the peaks and mountainsides, the smog and pollution mixing with the ever-present global ash cover. Only six years ago, on a clear day, I would have been able to see the space elevator as soon as I stepped off the plane: a shining silver cable, stretching down out of the blue sky to the anchoring citadel on Cayambe’s bare and rocky summit, its shadow cast over the city. Now, I could barely see twenty metres ahead of me.
Our field studies were being sponsored by BHX, the American engineering conglomerate that had built the elevator and had representatives in every major university in the English-speaking world, eager to snap up any fresh-faced young graduates. They put us up in a nice hotel in El Panecillo, an old city neighbourhood where a handful of Spanish colonial buildings stood like islands in an ocean of shopping malls, apartment buildings and multi-level freeways. It wasn’t a pleasant city; even in the two decades since the elevator had been completed, it was still struggling to cope with runaway population growth. Watanabe used to be like that, under that idiot mayor they had during the Calm. Millions of people clinging to a mountainside, inadequate housing, rampant poverty…
But it wasn’t Quito we were there to see. Every day our BHX representatives would take us up the winding service highway that spiralled around Cayambe, to the frigid and impregnable perch of the Citadel. With visitor passes clipped to our shirts, we were led through the departure terminals, down hallways and elevator shafts, out onto the catwalks suspended above the subterranean cargo bays. Below us were ranks of loading robots as big as Ferris wheels, transferring vacuum crates into elevator cars with their spidery legs, the roar of activity so loud that our guides had to shout to be heard. Every day they took us there to dispense facts and figures about the globe’s largest engineering project. It was managed by a trifecta of AIs developed by Caltech, BHX and the U.S. Department of Defence. It was nicknamed the “Stairway to Heaven” after some old song from the 20th century. It generated 67% of Ecuador’s GDP. Those three facts have stuck in my mind. One of the quirks of the human brain, I suppose. I may not be able to remember my mother’s face, but I can certainly tell you pointless trivia about an old aerospace megastructure.
What I was looking forward to most was our scheduled trip up the elevator itself to Liberty Station, that marvelous, gargantuan space terminal that had been immortalised in so many films and serials. Squeezing that into the program of our visit had been no mean feat, and was only accomplished after a lot of pressure from Exeter College’s engineering faculty. The elevator was packed every day, with rich or influential or just plain lucky refugees arriving from every corner of the world, hurling nearly a hundred people off the planet with every passing hour. It had been operating around the clock for the last five years, along with the European elevator in Kenya and the Chinese elevator in Sumatra. The Indian elevator had suffered from ash failure very early on, while the other three space powers raced to find a solution to protect their own vital links to the other worlds from the volcanic miasma creeping across the atmosphere. They had succeeded, all finding different solutions, the details of which I won’t go into. Suffice to say that their success resulted in the preservation of a hundred million human lives who would never have otherwise escaped Earth – including, of course, my own.
Our trip was scheduled for the 24th of December. On that day, at about seven o’ clock in the morning, I spoke with my father for the last time. Back home it was just past midnight, and he was sitting at the coffee table in the dark living room, speaking quietly so as not to wake the rest of the house. Half a dozen screens were open before him, filled with application forms and employment grants and all the other bureaucratic red tape necessary to transport a human family off-world.
I remember that image well. The lights of the Christmas tree were blinking in the corner, the family cat was curled up asleep on the armchair, and there were three stockings hung from the mantelpiece above the empty fireplace. One for my brother, one for my sister, and one for me. It was family tradition, even though I had been away from home for three years.
My father was stressed and tired. The Sumitomo grant had fallen through, erasing any chance we had of leaving Earth in the next five years. Our next best option would be a UN application, but most of those were going to the displaced South Asians whom Australia and South Africa and Kenya were trying to get rid of. I tried to remain cheerful, told him about the BHX reps I’d been talking to, who were watching the Oxford team closely for potential employees. If I could get a foot in the door, maybe end up working on the American elevator… vague hopes, naive speculation, but it lifted his spirits a little. I told him to go to bed, wished him Merry Christmas, closed the window and never saw him again.
Two hours later I was walking through the departure terminal of the Citadel, bypassing long queues of refugee families, having my passport scanned with the rest of my group, and being ushered into an elevator car with the BHX reps. It was one of the company’s new private models, designed to transport business executives up to Liberty in comfort and style. There was a small restaurant, an observation lounge and even a bar. By comparison, the regular models were ten-storey towers designed to carry upwards of three hundred people, produced shortly after the eruption to accommodate the skyrocketing emigration numbers. It was like comparing a private yacht with a container ship, and we were ecstatic to be provided with such luxury. We took quick advantage of the free drinks and were soon gathered on the observation deck, clapping each other drunkenly on the back and excitedly shouting, “I can’t believe we’re going to Liberty!”
There were seven other students on the trip, and one professor. I can’t remember any names or faces. I was the only person on that car who would be alive by the end of the week.
We were treated to spectacular views: the snowy spine of the Andes range, the tropical blues and greens of the Amazon, the azure-fringed Brazilian coast, the plains and deserts of Argentina. As the elevator cable dragged us higher, our view expanded ever further, across the dark Atlantic, up past the Caribbean islands to the grey urban sprawl of the American east coast. It was completely fake, a hologram based on pre-eruption recordings. What we really would have seen, had the hologram been removed, was nothing but grey. Just the same as if we were staring out of our hotel room in Quito. Nonetheless, we enjoyed it immensely for the first three hours of the ride.
During the fourth hour, the war broke out.
The causes of the 72-Hour War, or the Christmas War, or the Apocalypse, or whatever you want to call it, are a perpetual guessing game. Talk to a different historian and they will give you a different catalyst. The Chinese use of chemical weapons in Novosibirsk is a popular one. So is the seizure of Turkish civilian vessels by a Russian Navy frigate in the Black Sea. Fernando Loubet, a Gannish writer with some interesting theories, argues for a glitch in the American defence network that made it appear as though a thousand nuclear missiles were spearing down across the Midwest from orbital weapons platforms. Of course, it all dated back to the supervolcano. Or to the first Sino-Russian conflict. Or to the Cold War. Or to the first caveman who used a bone to hit another caveman. Whatever the cause, what I know is this: I was happily drunk, climbing up the space elevator into orbit, my childhood dream finally realised, when the first reports came in over the net and my world collapsed.
As I remember it, it was the BHX reps who first informed us, rushing up to the observation deck in a panic. The gravity of the situation didn’t connect with me, at first, until I tried to check the net to verify their story and found that I couldn’t, and a sick, nauseous feeling of horror descended on me. For my entire life, I had taken the net for granted. Everybody did, and still does. We are raised in a media-saturated culture, and even three or four seconds of down-time from any major outlet will result in tens of thousands of complaints. To have the entire net simply stop working was disturbing in itself. What it implied was greater still.
As all of us frantically tried to bring up news feeds, or open a transmission, or contact our families, we found that some connections still worked. They were tenuous and flimsy, prone to cut out suddenly, but they were there. Evacuation alerts. Religious broadcasts. Die hard newsreaders. A glimpse of a world plunged into chaos. Smart bombs tumbling down through the atmosphere. Orbital troops clashing, corpses spilling out of breaches in battleships, robotic drones gunning down refugees. Europe swathed in nuclear detonations. Entire cities and provinces set alight. I imagined the ancient stonework of Oxford, incinerated in a searing blast of white heat.
The hologram was turned off. The wall-to-wall windows of the observation deck, a roomy bubble atop the elevator, showed the truth for the first time in five years. We were leaving the atmosphere now, the ash thinning out, and through the gloomy murk below us we could see the dimly flickering trails of inter-continental missiles, dispatched from the American heartland to murder a few million people in the crowded cities of the Brazilian Federation. Higher still, and we could see the four-way orbital war that was being fought on the border between grey and blue: the munitions released from weapons platforms, the phosphorous gleam of military stations on high alert, the silent orange blossoms as warships broke open into the vacuum and vomited out sprays of furniture and paper and bodies.
Soon everyone onboard the car was standing on the observation deck, watching the carnage being played out all around us. Cooks, security guards, bartenders. Most people were working feverishly with their computers, trying to get through to their families. Some people were weeping, or shouting in rage, or lying there in blank shock. I was sitting quietly, overwhelmed with sheer disbelief. The more I stared out through the windows, the less I could accept what my eyes showed me.
We were only two hours away from Liberty Station when Galileo Point was hit, either by a Russian surface missile or an American sabotage team, depending on who was telling the story. We didn’t actually see the explosion, since Galileo Point was at the end of the Kenyan elevator and thus on the other side of the globe. But it was one of the few tidbits of news that leaked through the crippled net, and sent everybody into hysterics. It suddenly felt as though we were being hauled up our own elevator into a ticking time bomb.
With its counterweight gone, hurtling off through the void (where it would eventually take up solar orbit just inside the vulcanoid belt, and eventually be reclaimed by a Mercurian tourism company as a stopover for passing cruise liners) the European elevator cable came crashing down through the atmosphere. It laid waste to western Africa, dropped huge chunks of platinum alloy into the Atlantic Ocean, and unleashed tidal waves to devastate every coastal city that hadn’t already been rendered a smoking, glass-rimmed crater. The upper reaches burned away to nothing as they plunged through the atmosphere, along with the thousands of falling cars and their occupants. A good thing, too, or it might have hit our own elevator cable.
We arrived at Liberty Station and quickly left the car in a dazed, disorderly mess. Some people had developed the idea that we were incredibly lucky to have been outward bound when the war started, and should leave the neighbourhood as soon as we made it to the station. I went along with them, confused and disoriented. Had I been thinking clearly I probably would have wanted to stay on Liberty, refusing to leave Earth without my family; as it was, I clung to any leadership that presented itself.
I had no idea what to expect upon our arrival. Grinning American troops directing everybody to evacuation ships, a Red Cross worker handing me a care package and cup of warm soup. Or maybe Chinese and Indian soldiers, waging a battle for control of the station, refugees ripped apart in the crossfire. Neither was true. Liberty Station was like everything else on or around Earth during those monumental three days: a chaotic, violent mess. Nearly all the vessels docked at the station had fled as soon as the war had broken out; lifeboats leaving half-empty, in accordance with human tradition. Thousands of refugees were now stranded at the tip of ten thousand kilometres of elevator cable, the ultimate dead-end, with nowhere to go except back down to Earth. More were arriving every hour.
What occurred next was one of those great, courageous strokes of humanitarian brilliance, as famous as the Dunkirk Evacuation or the Valigrad Rescue. It’s taught to every Martian schoolchild, and has been related to us over and over again in every imaginable medium – my personal favourite is Petra Thorpe’s 2126 film Final Flight of the Athena, on which I served as a technical advisor.
The situation facing us was bleak. The only ships left at Liberty were those unable to fly – crippled, mid-service or awaiting decommission. The largest of these was the Athena, one of about twelve heavy lifters built during the mineral boom to transport massive amounts of workers between Earth and Mars. The Athena was the last of her fleet, awaiting dismantling for parts and scrap metal, already deactivated and with some of her systems removed. She was attached to a docking cradle visible from the main concourse of the station. Her carrying capacity was five thousand.
Leadership emerged. It always does. A team of security personnel, station marines and members of the engineer corps moved into the Athena and began to repair her, working non-stop, gutting the other remaining ships for supplies and replacement parts. All the while, the war was still raging below us and around us. Distant explosions at the cusp of the Earth’s curve would momentarily bathe Liberty with light, while Indian and European fighter jets screamed past us locked in combat, swooping between the docking cradles and long arms of the construction cranes. While our saviours worked, the rest of us waited, terrified and exhausted and tense.
It was around this time that my memory fails me. The shock and trauma of what was happening was taking its toll. I was a sheltered upper-class youth, never having been exposed to so much as a fistfight, and suddenly I had been swept along on the tide of the largest war in history.
I have a single memory from Liberty Station that I remember well, like a spot of clarity in a foggy window. It was early on, while I was still with some of my fellow students. We were on an observation deck, crowded up against the window with lots of other people, watching the distant flashes and flickers of the orbital battles.
Suddenly there were screams, a sense of aggression. It was a brawl between two groups – American security personnel and Brazilian workers – but the fear and hysteria spread like a contagion until the whole crowd was dangerous. Amidst the crackle of tasers, the makeshift weapons smashed against security visors, the screams for help in dozens of languages, I was knocked to the floor. Something hit me in the head and my vision instantly blurred. Through the trampling feet and falling bodies, I caught a glimpse of one of my classmates, a girl with red hair, being stepped on, a security guard with heavy boots crushing her neck as he swung his baton at an assailant. I reached out for her before something slammed into my head again, and I collapsed.
When I woke up, the observation deck was deserted. The carpet around me was littered with broken glass and splashed with blood. There were a few other prone bodies. Somebody had taken my wallet and computer. All of my classmates were gone.
That was Liberty, for me. That was the anarchy that raged in the main body of the station, even as a few plucky heroes were crawling across the hull of the Athena with spacesuits and multitools. Worse things happened than that – rape, murder, violence of all kinds. Liberty Statio was the largest space station ever constructed, with casinos and restaurants and bars and hotels, but with half the population of Ecuador flooding up the elevator it was becoming crowded very quickly. The fact that many of these people came from Quito’s multicultural melting pot, representatives of all the nations across the world that were now ripping each other apart, didn’t help the situation.
After the fight on the observation deck, I never saw any of my classmates again. I wandered through the malls and esplanades of the station, hungry and alone and miserable. I would flee from the smallest sign of tension, take shelter from fights in the looted stores and obscure utility rooms with other quiet groups of survivors. I wasn’t involved in the repair of the Athena, or any leadership role at all. Because I’m famous now, people assume I was, but at the time I was a twenty-one year-old nobody with red eyes and a fractured skull, shuffling feebly amongst the crowds, weeping for the girl with the red hair, whose face I can no longer remember.
But all the squabbling and fighting and violence came to a halt on Christmas morning, when the Citadel was vapourised by a fusion warhead, along with the summit of Cayambe and the entire Quito metropolitan area. We didn’t even realise that, until we noticed that the station was drifting away from Earth, trailing the cable behind it.
I don’t remember it happening, or what I felt, or how everyone else reacted. Benjamin Urrutia wrote in his memoirs that people reacted with a collective sigh of relief, glad to have been cut free of the conflict, unaware that being adrift in outer space was hardly a better scenario. Jorge Jamarillo, on the other hand, claims that the terror and panic intensified as people saw the grey circle of Earth slowly grow smaller, likening the feeling to being dragged below the ocean’s surface, losing sight of the light and the air. Take your pick as to who’s right, because I certainly can’t remember. I was beyond gone, then, my mind shutting down from sheer grief and terror.
There were roughly 7600 people on Liberty Station when it was cut loose. Eight hours later the Athena was finally declared spaceworthy and every single one of us was hustled aboard, abandoning the drifting space station to achieve escape velocity and leave the solar system. It’s headed for the star 70 Virginis, and by now it’s travelled about four and a half light years, or one twelfth of the way. By the year 3300 it should either crash into it, swing past it, or fall into orbit and become a new satellite. Like I said, I don’t remember much of it, but I’ve walked through it plenty of times in the sims since the war, and it’s a hell of a place. The sims don’t cover the devastation, of course – they don’t have the dead bodies or the smashed shopfronts or the view of mass homicide out the windows – but if there’s any aliens living in the Virgo constellation, it should still be pretty astounding for them.
So we bade farewell to Liberty Station and set off on the glorious Flight of the Athena, seven thousand people crammed onto a leaky ship with jury-rigged life support systems, untrained crew, barely suppressed ethnic tension and a seething atmosphere of terror. Our self-elected leader was a Canadian security captain named Stephen Abatzi, who took charge with a natural air of authority. He later emigrated to Europa and became a high-ranking general, which got him killed during the Jovian War. He was a brilliant man – although I never met him, I was always very much in awe of him. It was his decision to press on to Mars rather than turn back to Luna, which was only about two days away. It turned out to be a wise decision indeed, for the war was already spilling over onto Luna, and less than half the moonbound refugees made it off that bare and desolate rock alive. Abatzi was of the opinion that it would be safer to resupply at an asteroid enroute to Mars rather than turn back towards the war zone, and he was absolutely right.
Through a stroke of sheer luck, Mars and Earth were virtually in conjunction at the time of the war, reducing a journey that would otherwise have taken half a year to only six weeks. With the vessel overloaded by twenty per cent, we were burning through water and oxygen fast, and Abatzi immediately charted a course for the nearest settled asteroid. My memory of that time melts together into an endless stream of lying in crowded corridors, listening to my fellow refugees talking in Spanish, babies crying, the stink of sweat and unwashed bodies. I knew that my family was dead, but that minor grief was swallowed whole by the terrible certainty that Earth was too. After Boxing Day, we heard no broadcasts from Earth, only cries for help from the overwhelmed lunar stations, and talk of revolution and independence from Mars.
Earth was gone.
I didn’t cope very well. As I mentioned earlier, I have trouble remembering the events clearly because I was simply no longer functioning. I slept, lying in a corridor or storeroom with dozens of other people. I ate, whenever the security guards would distribute our carefully rationed food. I went to the bathroom, which was about as fun as you might imagine in an overcrowded spaceship that had no time for luxuries like hygiene. But my mental state was completely blank.
There are limits to what the human mind can take. I had reached mine. I was, like so many of the people around me, sinking into a catatonic condition.
Meanwhile, many storeys above my head, Abatzi and his people were on the flight deck working around the clock. They were monitoring communications, watching the sensor trails of other vessels, guarding the ship’s supplies from the ravenous hordes of refugees below who had no concept of rationing. They were stressed and scared and exhausted, but they were doing everything in their power to get us to Mars. Abatzi addressed us over the PA every twenty-four hours. “We are still alive,” he said. “We have come through the most terrible chapter in human history. We have had to face the unthinkable. We have had to accept that Earth, the cradle of civilisation, the mother world, has died. But humanity has not. Humanity lives on, in the asteroid belt, on Mars, on the moons of Jupiter. Even as the bombs were coming down from orbit, there were humans in scientific vessels enroute to Uranus and Neptune. Humanity will recover. Humanity is still alive. We are standing at the next great step of human achievement. And I swear that I will get you to Mars, and that we will survive – all of us – to see it happen.”
He wasn’t the best orator, but he had more important things to worry about than keeping our morale up. Like keeping our oxygen levels and water supplies up.
The asteroid he eventually picked to accomplish this was Adonis. It was being used as a labour camp, like hundreds of other asteroids in those days, mostly for political prisoners and enemies of the state. There were about six hundred convicts there, mostly Americans, and when we arrived on the 6th of January they were engaged in a power struggle against the fifty or so well-armed guards. The same scenes were being played out all over the asteroid prisons in the days following the 72-Hour War: guards vs. convicts, the victors earning a long, lonely wait to die out on the border of nowhere.
We cut a deal with the convicts as soon as we came into the asteroid’s orbit, agreed to take the prison guards to Mars in exchange for the supplies we needed to get there. The prisoners were free to remain on the asteroid, to create whatever new society they wanted, and we were free to travel to a world that actually had a future. Everyone was happy. There were problems, naturally, mostly relating to the fact that we needed far more supplies than the prisoners were willing to give us. After haggling for several days Abatzi decided that we were running out of time and sanctioned the use of force. A lot of them were killed, and the asteroid’s main nuclear reactor was damaged in the fighting, triggering a meltdown. The fight was immediately forgotten as convicts, guards and Abatzi’s makeshift militia all fled the tunnels of Adonis and crammed onto the Athena, which was now blasting off from its second radioactive wasteland in two weeks. The prisoners were understandably upset about the fact that they were now heading for a planet which looked like it might end up being controlled by the same powers who’d had them imprisoned in the first place, so there was an attempted coup, and they managed to seize control of the flight deck for a few hours. It might as well have been happening on another ship as far as I was concerned; the Athena was huge, and I was lost somewhere in the bleak mass of fragile souls scattered about the lower decks. Abatzi’s people soon regained control and executed the ring-leaders. Then it was only a month to Mars.
When we came into orbit around our new home, the Second Revolution was still in full swing. The UN holdouts, stubborn representatives of nations that no longer existed, controlled several major cities. Resistance fighters and government troops were openly clashing in the streets and the outback. Martan Pearse was broadcasting passionate speeches to the people from his hideout in the caldera of Elysium Mons. There was nobody to greet us or help us, nobody to intercept us and provide us with a safe landing and medical treatment. Quite the contrary: after we set our own approach vector and cautiously descended through the pink Martian atmosphere, intending to land at Manakh Interplanetary, an orbital weapons platform shot us out of the sky.
It was a UN station, but it had been commandeered by the resistance. I don’t look kindly on that, obviously, but there were worse atrocities in that war, and I can understand their motives. The Martians were in the midst of a tsunami of refugees from Earth, swamping their delicate infrastructure, at the same time that they were clashing with old Terran power-brokers in a fight for their emerging national identity and ultimate freedom. Jingoism and anti-Terran sentiment, always popular themes among native Martians, were now running at an all-time high. Especially after the majority of refugee vessels, dropping out of the sky in the last six weeks like so many raindrops, had included equipment and weapons and soldiers that automatically supported the UN.
So our entry into our new home was appropriately dramatic: searing down through the florid dawn sky over the cratered plains of Terra Cimmeria, the ship’s hull burning up, the thousands of refugees inside pinned to the walls by the g-forces. Now that, I do remember – trapped inside a labyrinth of human limbs in whatever dark sub-corridor I’d happened to be in at the time, straining for breath, my vision greying out as the blood was drawn away from my eyeballs.
And then the impact.
I’d lived through one apocalypse. This was my second. Cracking a sonic boom across the thin Martian air, the Athena ploughed through nearly twelve kilometres of rusty desert before finally coming to rest at the end of a smouldering tail of debris that stretched beyond the horizon. My legs and my spine were broken. Many of those around me were dead. My last memory, before blacking out, was the remarkable silence around me – after the agonising roar of the ship’s hull being scrubbed across the landscape at hundreds of kilometres an hour, the occasional distant scream or the muffled whimpering of my fellow refugees sounded very quiet indeed.
When I woke up, five months had passed. The Second Revolution had ended while I was in a coma. The resistance had stamped out the infighting in its own ranks, gutted the Mangala Tong, and seized firm control of the planet. Martan Pearse had been sworn in as the provisional President of Mars, and given his famous speech signalling the beginning of the Humanity Project. Thousands of people – statesmen, soldiers, refugees, politicians, scientists, journalists – had congregated in Agassiz to draft the Martian Constitution. All while I had been fighting for my life in the reconstruction ward of a hospital in Manakh.
After the Athena had crash-landed, it had taken three hours for the local UN forces – Manakh was still under their control at that point – to scramble a recovery team out for the survivors. There were very few. Out of more than 8000 people onboard the Athena, only 425 survived the crash. Nearly all of us were grievously injured, destined to spend months, years or even entire lifetimes in that hospital. I was there for 22 months, having my new spine spawned and calibrated, going through mental trauma counselling, learning to walk again. The hospital was at the edge of what would one day become Crescent Bay. I could look out my window and see the terraforming works in Hellas Basin, the city-sized gas platforms crawling across the encroaching sea of ice, throwing up huge plumes of steam and boiling water as they dragged the moisture out of the earth, growing an ocean from scratch. It was a view I needed, at that point in my life.
I was eventually judged fit to leave, although they were wrong about that. I may have been able to walk but I certainly wasn’t capable of entering normal society, healthy and whole. I suffered from nightmares, nervous breakdowns, and flashbacks for years to come. I spent more than a decade wandering around Mars, working here and there, sometimes for the resettlement programs and sometimes off the books. People say the Calm was a noble time, an optimistic period of history when people realised what they could accomplish by working together. That’s what children are taught in school. Perhaps it was like that, for some people. Not for me. Not for any refugee. We were treated as second-class citizens in those days – don’t ever let them whitewash that one out of the history books – and we had our own trauma to deal with. I did foolish things in my grief. I got into fights. I became involved with some bad people. I ended up addicted to wire, a homeless dreg sleeping underneath bridges. It was a long, long time before I could feel good about life again.
The Athena is still there. Her wreck has been lying out in western Cimmeria for nearly a hundred years now. It’s a pretty remote spot, so it’s not as tourist-infested as it might be otherwise. The forest grew up through it during the terraforming, right through the breached hulls and empty rooms. The rest of the ship is covered with grasses and flowers and vines, and there are entire flocks of birds and troops of monkeys living in it. Unless you saw it from afar you wouldn’t even recognise it as a spaceship.
I’ve been there a few times, most recently in the eighties. I didn’t like it the first few times. It triggered bad memories. But after a while bad memories just become… memories. It seems odd to say that I miss that time. It was a terrible, traumatic, dangerous, horrifying time in my life. But as the decades slip past, as I become one of the only people who still remembers it, as it become less and less important… it just seems sad. It may have been horrifying, but it was also incredible and amazing. I was no participant; just a passive observer. And yet I observed the most massive and unbelievable events in human history, on such a grand scale…
I live in a dull world now. I have for far too long – a world of meetings and minutes, of suits and ties, of paperwork and government regulation and funding reports. I moved out here to get away from all of that, but it leaves me far too alone with my memories. I moved on from those days, spiritually and emotionally, a long time ago. But lately… lately I’ve been missing them.
Lately I’ve been missing Earth.
* * *