Last Days of Ancient Sunlight
In the near future, a visionary leader brings Ireland to the forefront of green technology while in Alaska, communities displaced by the rising seas struggle to rebuild without losing their sense of self. Disparate worlds collide when fracked-out gas fields in middle America collapse, finally destabilizing the last of the old-world power regime in The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight.
Here begins a few weeks of probably-daily vote hounding, because I’ve applied for a grant which has a first step of reality-show-style popularity contest to it. Arthur Guinness Projects is offering grants of up to €50K for a variety of arenas: arts, music, sport and food.
I’ve applied for an arts grant to work on my climate change trilogy, which I’d dearly love to do. The catch in the voting process is you have to sign up for their site, which I wish wasn’t the case, but if you don’t mind doing so, you can vote for my project once a day. And it’d be really nice if you would. :)
Behind the cut is the (extremely rough, but uncut) version of the excerpt that is also posted on the AGP website.
A generation grew up with orange glow of a distant night horizon; the generation before had watched satellite imagery record empty darkness turning to brilliant light in what seemed to be the space of a moment. Natural gas, burnt off as hydraulic fracturing extracted oil from deep in the earth, becoming an economic saviour for downtrodden states. The fires of progress burned bright. Men and women—mostly men—were drawn to it, moth to flame, working long nights and frozen winters to send paychecks to the families waiting at home. From the Dakotas up through Manitoba, the oil fields warmed two countries.
The collapse was heralded by a bloom of fire, reaching high into the night sky. Even in the depth of winter’s darkness, the black smoke was visible, eating at the flame. Both rushed south, smoke and fire, chasing after breaking earth. Deep rumbles shook the ground, liquifying stone and dirt. It fell, then burst upward again, thrust skyward by escaping gas, by rupturing oil, by toxic water. And it burned, fresh blooms set alight by the flames that men had deliberately lit a half century earlier to rid the fields of rising gas.
The sound of exploding gas came long after the earth’s shuddering cries: punctuated booms that shook the air just as pulverizing, sliding stone shook the ground. In advance of the flame, snow turned black, mixed with earth, with oil, with smoke. Then it was gone, melted into the failing spine of two nations.
There were no high places from which to watch it happen, not in the Badlands; not in the low rolling hills and flat plains that made up the middle swath of a continent. Airliners flying overhead might have seen it had the collapse come only a few hours later, in the late gray dawn of winter; as it was, only a handful of passengers, alert against their will in the cold night, pressed their faces against scratched plastic windows and wondered what the newly rough, fiery shadows below them now meant.
Had there been a high place, had there been light enough, an observer would have seen God’s own furrow plowed into the land. A thousand miles long, eighty miles wide, from Saskatchewan to Nebraska, a burning rip in the earth that plunged deeper than fracking had ever gone. The worst of it passed in minutes, strained soil shattering into a fault that reached for the depths of Hell, but the aftermath would go on for decades.
She had grown up in California. In earthquake territory, where natives looked at their watches to count the quake’s length, and made educated guesses as to its magnitude. She had never been afraid of the shifting earth; rather, had found it satisfying in a way. It was beyond her control, completely beyond her control, and it offered a reminder that the planet would do as it wished, regardless of how much humanity tried to rein it in. Once, when she was nine, a 6.8 had run through San Francisco. Obedient to her mom’s command, she’d gotten in a door frame then, but she’d stayed on her feet, knees loose, to ride out the ripples and waves. That had been the biggest quake she’d known, and the memory still gave her an exhilarated grin.
This was bigger. She knew it in her bones. Knew it before she’d even woken up from the huddled sleep on a barely-insulated plywood floor six inches above the packed snow. The sound was wrong, deep and threatening, though out here there were no glass buildings to shatter, nor much steel to tear. Only the oil rigs, and the few decent houses that the company men lived in. Everything else was temporary, Quanset huts and short-term shacks, even for the necessary businesses that had sprung up. Entrenched temporary digs, because nobody, not even the oil men, had ever pretended the fracked oil was going to last forever. Build a real city here, and in a century you’d have a ghost town. The only thing anybody was there for was the oil.
And the oil had a smell right now. Not its usual sweet crude smell, not the perpetual faint scent of fire from the burning gas, but something darker, more dangerous. Smoke, ammonia, benzene: choking smells, smells that could kill.
She was on her feet, still wrapped in the sleeping bag, and halfway out the door before she was even awake. Into the heavy-wheeled truck, fumbling cold hands against the drive shaft, fitting her thumb to the start pad, praying for a flawless start on a cold black night. The truck had been used just the evening before: even thirty degrees below shouldn’t stop it turning over. Didn’t stop it turning over; the engine came to life without complaint. No lights, because the hind part of her brain, the rabbit part, the lizard part, feared that light would draw attention to her, while the thinking part tried not to see the raging orange horizon behind her. It reflected everywhere, off the snow, off the truck’s dull silver paint, off the thin clouds above. The world was made of fire, all to the north and the west of her, and the shaking was starting to rattle her in the truck’s bucket seat. It felt like it was coming for her, coming at her, like it was running hell bent for leather to the Gulf of Mexico.
The fracking fields ran that far south.
Sarah Jane downshifted, got a grip on the snow with chained tires, and drove east on the wings of a prayer.
“Taoiseach? You’ll want to see this.” A green-jacketed aide offered him a mobile, and under the habitual strength of an imperfect smile, Hugh Ryan went cold. In twenty years, his personal law of carrying nothing, nor allowing anything to be given to him, that could distract him from the matter at hand, had been broken fewer than a dozen times. He was known for it, known for the unwavering attention he gave to the men and women he spoke to. He was well-liked for it, too, and a good politician kept doing what made people like him. Only two things were permitted to break that rule: personal emergencies and international ones.
Once, it had been his daughter. She had recovered, thanks be to God, and every other interruption had been of international consequence. Let it be the Sudan, and not my son, he thought. But the Sudan would have broken on micromedia and attendees at this morning’s early meet-and-greet, folk more fashionable than he, would have seen it already in their augmented glasses, or heard it through their in-skin communicators. Unless it was so large a thing that the governments had issued a time-delay on media rollouts, letting only the user see the postings going live. That could be the Sudan indeed, or even the south of France.
And Seamus, the aide, had said Ryan would want to see it, not take it; that would mean it wasn’t a call, and that would mean it wasn’t his family. Convinced by the power of this thought—for it would be a poor politician who couldn’t convince himself of his lies, even for a passing moment—Ryan gave his all to the smile he offered the young couple he spoke with. To be one of the rare people speaking to him when he took a call was either a great excitement or a grand insult. They had the look of excitement about them. Ryan lowered his voice and leaned in, inviting them to conspiracy with his posture and the depth of his brogue. “Can ye’s forgive me? I’ll be back to you—”
The aide cleared his throat. Ryan’s smile broadened. “—as soon as I can be, to be sure. But it’s the wind farms you’re concerned with, so it’s the Minister of the Environment I’ll have you brought to. He’ll see you immediately, or have me to answer for it. Seamus, see that it’s done.” He took the mobile and refused to look at it until the three of them, Dail aide and constituents, were well on their way. Only then did he turn the mobile over.
Film footage, not a local call, glimmered on the screen. Relief clenched Ryan’s belly, though he’d swear no one there saw it beneath the careful, handsome veneer he habitually wore. He’d been called a hipster in his youth and kept a bit of that about him in the way he wore his hair and chose narrow ties to complement his suits. Taking the piss out of himself, out of who he’d been and who he now was. It was another thing people liked, and Hugh Ryan had made a career of being liked.
Mostly, at least.
Knowing he was being watched, knowing the whole of the gathering would already be checking their own news feeds to see what was of enough importance that he had taken a call, Ryan lifted the phone in acknowledgment and stepped away into a private space to trigger the video feed.
Still images at first, a slideshow with text overlaid: North Dakota, USA. Then a wordless film taken from a helicopter that dodged plumes of smoke and sudden fireballs that shot skyward as if the vehicle was a target in a video game. The sound, even from the mobile’s small speakers, was ungodly: echoing booms that made the mobile tremble in Ryan’s hand. His nose wrinkled with the imagined smell, and only then did he realise his breath was held. He exhaled, then, not meaning to, held it again.
Wracked earth ran endlessly beneath the helicopter’s runners. In its depths, it bubbled and oozed black poison. He had seen the look of that before, though never afire. It was the thick sheen of an oil spill, the killing slick that had time and again been released on unwary wildlife and once-clean shores.
Once in a while the filmographer lifted the camera to look into the distance, seeking the fissure’s edges. Edges it found, distant and fogged with gloom, but an end was nowhere to be seen. It went on forever, splitting a continent.
Finally a twangy American voice came on, shaking with emotion. “This information is on lockdown by order of the combined might of the United States and Canadian governments. No one imagines the lockdown will last more than a few more hours, maybe only minutes, but in somebody’s sick idea of good luck, practically everybody in the collapse path is dead, so there’s nobody to report much of anything right now. Satellite imagery has been frozen with yesterday’s weather conditions, the—”
The voice broke off, then took hold of itself, though the speaker still clearly struggled to stick to immediately relevant facts. “At approximately 5:30am Central time this morning—” Ryan checked the mobile’s data information; it was half two in the afternoon, so the disaster had struck two hours earlier. Someone had done an admirable job of keeping it quiet this long. “—the fracking fields of the North American mid-western states and provinces collapsed. A fissure has opened up for hundreds of miles. The earthquakes have not yet stopped. There’s panic in every major nearby city, from Regina to Fargo, but so far it’s being described as activity from a previously unknown fault line. The United States and Canada will be appealing for international disaster relief. This video is being sent to world leaders in order to begin a dialogue regarding—”
Ryan thumbed the sound off and whispered the truth of what the reporter had been about to say, rather than whatever words she might have used: “Regarding the best way to keep the genie in the bottle, ah, but it’s out now, lads, and you’re hurting for it.” More clearly, he said, “Ann. Ann Dermott.”
She had not been in sight; she was within hearing. Her name had barely finished passing his lips when she appeared, professional, cool—jaded, said RTE—but Ryan knew better than that. She was not young, but blonde hair gone white early made her seem older than her years. No one saw her that way, though; no one save Ryan. “Get me the President.”
Dermott turned a few degrees, a questioning brow rising toward the curtain that separated them from the throng beyond. Maireid Kenneally was out there, doing her own duty as gracious elected leader of a small country.
“No.” Ryan offered his best smile, the one that made babies want to be kissed. “No, Ann. Get me the President of the United States. Tonight we’re going to save America.”
B. Ross Ashley
Oh their Ghod.