Tavish gave a low whistle as the grainy mess on the portable screen in front of him coalesced into an identifiable image. Still grainy, but clear enough to coax a whistle out of the usually unflappable geologist.
“Pierce!” he shouted. “Oi, Pierce!” His voice sounded flat in the landscape, and this high up there was nothing for the sound to echo from – had it been able to fight its way through the heavy, crystalline air in the first place.
Tavish whistled again, this time through his teeth. A high-pitched tone that would have cut through less severe meteorological conditions and raised the attention of its intended recipient, but in these ones, did not. He called again.
“Ho there! Pierce! Fucking Pierce! Would you come look at this?! Oi!” He added an enthusiastic semaphore dance to his repertoire hoping to catch his colleague’s eye with the jumping and waving his arms in the air he titled ‘neon commotion’ on the spot.
Pierce looked up wearing the bewildered expression of one whose deep concentration has been wrested unwilling back to earth.
“Mmwhat?” he enquired.
“The screen. Just come look, will you? I think there’s a fucking road down there. With vehicles on it. And people.”
Although the words fell like ice cubes to the ground before Pierce could catch them, Tavish’s ordinarily muted face was animated enough with a shifting melange of excitement and horror that he got up in a hurry to go see.
“Yep. Okay. Gotcha. Man, I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Uh huh, I’ll see you both in 30.”
Swift disconnected the neural net, gave her dog, Bones, a quick whuffle of the ears on her way down the short hallway and grabbed her coat – patched together from multiple mismatched shorthaired hides with an under-jacket of sheepskin and a gilet of thick, wiry wool on top – before opening the door and holding it there, expectant. Her expectation let down, she raised her eyebrows at Bones, who sat patiently at the other end of the hall, panting gently and sweeping the hard-pack behind her with her besom of a tail, head cocked to one side as though to say, “¿Que?”. Swift rolled her eyes and flicked her head towards the open doorway. “Come on, dog,” she said. “You’re letting the heat out.” And with that she strode out into the flittering dark, grabbing a torch from the sconce by the doorway and with the dog trotting at her heel, a loll-tongued grin on its freckled face.
There wasn’t much you could do for transport these days. It wasn’t so much that the knowledge was lacking as it was the ability to manufacture and shape the materials. Technology had adapted in some truly remarkable ways since the white wash, or WWIII, as it was sardonically known in the hubs, but raw materials were almost impossible to come by. Without raw materials there was no way to build the heavy machinery required for manufacturing at scale or mine for the fuel needed to run the heavy machinery to manufacture its bloody self to begin with. It was a whole chicken/egg thing nobody had ever quite managed to figure out. The upshot was that any remotely sizeable machinery was a) very thin on the ground, and b) only used in the most extreme of circumstances. You could power small electronic devices with your own electrical energy, and there were portable leg-powered turbines fitted with friction dynamos for anything a bit larger. But automated transport was all but unheard of.
Dog teams, or shaggy splay-hooved ponies. A goat cart. That was about the sum of your available options.
Swift set out on foot, holding the torch high ahead of her in the blizzard and keeping one hand on the day-glo pick-and-cord line that led all the way to her colleague Pierce’s house on the far border of the compound. Tavish was already there.
It wasn’t that anyone was naïve enough to think there’d be no-one down there. Under the tundra. Enough of history – hell, civilisation even – survived that the information was transferred from what remained of the archaic internet to the neural web, for those who had lived close enough to the remaining stuttering pockets of industrialisation to have it implanted when it was first released. A handful of the old places had lasted a while – after the Wash had swept across the globe – by dint of latitude, altitude, or some other good fortune that allowed it to survive where others were engulfed by the encroaching cold snap that took over the planet.
Everyone out on the fringes of what remained of humanity lived primitive lives at best, most of them with a good dose apiece of rickets, from the vitamin D deficiency exacerbated by their darker skin tone – olive was all it took – and scurvy, from lack of greens, which loosened their teeth in their skulls and gave their hair and eyes a dull look. Scurves, people from the hubs called them. ‘Biners, they were called in turn, on account of the chalky complexion that had triumphed with the increasing lack of meaningful sunlight. With humanity returned to a more tribal existence, in-group preference was exaggerated, and it was hard to move from one group to the other without being made to feel like the most royal of sore thumbs.
Swift was a Scurve. Well, without the namesake, anyway. But neither Tavish nor Pierce really noticed such surface-level inconsequences when there was a half decent thinking machine to be tussled with beneath. Swift, in short, could hold her own, even among those adapted for this life. And for the rest, she took homemade vitamin D supplements made from dried powdered mushrooms and hydro-farmed algae blended with a good lug of rendered animal fat. Whatever animal could be trapped did the job, although how palatable the resulting concoction was depended largely on the species of the binding agent. Never mind. She sucked it down dutifully each day. Eggs helped, too, when she could get them. There wasn’t much scratch around for poultry.
Gathered all together now in Pierce’s firelit cabin, the three self-styled scientists – a geologist, a meteorologist and a climatologist – discussed today’s findings and batted some ideas around as to how they might go about learning more. It might be an important scientific and historical study, but – which was more vital – there might be salvageable ‘stuff’ down there. Stuff was the agreed-upon scientific term they decided to go with. Stuff could be useful. Or it could be life-saving for the inhabitants of this particular frozen corner of the earth. Learning more about what was down there, under Great Static, would help them and the hub leaders decide whether to risk the fuel on a full-scale excavation.
Bones lay by the fire allowing her face to be head-butted by Pierce’s bobcat hybrid and cocking an occasional ear at crescendos in the conversation, before settling with a pointed huff-and-grumble when it resumed normal pitch.
When they had decided on the best course of action, along with one or two contingencies, they conferenced into the network and put forward their suggestions to the hub leaders. In the meantime, all the information gleaned so far would be uplinked to the neural web and thus be made available to anyone implanted, on the off chance that someone in one of the hubs dotted around the world had any useful input.
They decided on spiders for the initial exploration, and set about charging them from their own source – even Bones and Bob the sort-of bobcat were roped in – ready to set out for the glacier at first light. Equipment and provisions went into tough skin bags and were packed on a sled, to be pulled by Pierce’s ragtag team.
He – or rather, his depressing and piecemeal record and his seventeen-year-old bag o’ bones – was discovered by scientists drilling for ice cores on the vast edifice known as the Great Static glacier, in the Hog’s Rump Tundra, erstwhile East Anglia, UK. At a depth of some 800m the drill had struck a thin layer of metal followed by a sizeable air pocket, and mobile ground-penetrating radar had been brought in to investigate at great fuel cost. The reason behind the glacier’s name was what made it of interest: the densely compacted snow-ice was on more or less flat footings, and so it just kept getting thicker and thicker as more snow was deposited and compacted, never actually flowing anywhere. Which explained how it had gotten so damn thick in the relatively short time since the White Wash back in 2018.
Safe excavation of the magnitude required to allow a team down from the surface was impossible; the ice river didn’t move much, but it did move some, and the danger of any tunnel bored through it becoming warped and trapping whoever might be down there was simply too great. The lead scientist, Dr. Pierce, had opted for octicbots, otherwise known as ice-spiders, to be sent down instead; the mechanical spiders had the advantage of coming in a variety of sizes, and the fine-yet-robust machinery could both drill partway into the ice using the distal articulations in their eight telescopic legs, and hammer them into any tiny fissures they found with enough percussive force to send webs of cracks skittering across the surface of the ice. Pun intended. The skittish, tickling noise a pack of them made moving across it was of a type to make your skin crawl, even with the general lack of invertebrate life around to serve as a backlash of childhood nightmares.
Scavenging for usable hardware bore little fruit; the immense pressure exerted by the surrounding ice coupled with the year-round sub-20 temperatures meant that most things shattered when even gingerly probed by the scuttling spiders. To the scientists’ surprise, the 30 metres of ice running through and immediately above the road was composed of salt water – like an immense tidal surge had been frozen solid while still in motion – but the lack of oxygen had prevented corrosion. Now the site was exposed to even the thin atmosphere of the tundra they would have to work fast, because that was about to change.
The road had been gridlocked when the surge hit, they discovered, although many of the vehicles had been crushed over time. But somehow, a large bus – complete with its very own air pocket – survived. And so, for a while, had the driver and his twelve fleeing passengers, including one teenage boy and his account, begun as a video diary on his phone, then a series of other phones and devices – the preserved micro-SSDs could be uploaded to the neural web easily enough – then, when batteries had all given out, his own notebook, followed by a spread to any scrap of paper he could lay his hands on and finally, scratched into any exposed metal on the buckled inner shell of the coach with a bit of broken glass. According to a forensic analysis of the spider pics sent up to the surface via neural relay, the last few entries were made with bits of gnawed rib.
The spiders retrieved what they could, spraying any perishable material with an insta-set polymer compound before touching it, and took pictures of the rest before the rust obliterated everything. It began cheerily enough, given the circumstances.
KC Video Transcript, 2 March 2018, 10:14am, Duration: 13m47s
KC [teenager, animated]: Yo, Internet. Fuck. Fuuuck. Check this out. We all [pans phone camera around a gathered group. Flash on. Dark] just survived the craziest apocalypse shit! Like, two, three days ago. It’s been fucking mental. [A number of the group – older – tut. Presume at his language?] Get this. So, when the flood warnings start blaring everything hits the fan [contemporary idiom?], yeah, and I reckon the whole fucking world starts running around like a headless fucking chicken. [Cont. id.?] [More tutting.]
We [pans camera again], us lot yeah, we all end up together on this bus – this fucking miracle of a bloody bus [some smiles, some shell-shocked expressions among the group] – but we’re alright. We’re alright. There’s two fully loaded snack trolleys in the galley, and look, it’s cold enough to keep the fresh stuff fresh a while, am-i-right? [Winks.] And there’s a few miniatures to keep us warm n’all [winks]. But we’re gonna need rescuing pretty soon, alright? [Various gestures of assent among group.] We’re on the A47 [location marker?] near Trowse heading in the direction of Norwich? Just past the lights before you turn right towards County Hall.
I’m gonna go round the group now so you know who’s here, and then we’ll get this little beauty posted, alright? [Looks around group.] [Moves phone so camera points at first person on left and goes around each member in turn.]
Soft-spoken woman [middle-aged, shy]: Er, hi. Uh, I’m Vicky. I’m from just outside Norwich and I’ve got a daughter and a grandson to get back to at home. [Waves at camera.] Hi kids. I’ll be home soon. Don’t worry about me, I’m sure they’ll send help as soon as they realise we’re here. Love you both.
Old couple [both shocked]: [Him] Um, well, hello. We’re – that is, Di, my wife, and I. Um, I’m Ed – we’re actually from Portsmouth, just at the seaside for our summer holiday. We’ve got family waiting for us [squeezes wife’s hand and smiles at her]. We just want them to know we’re safe [squeezes hand again] and, God willing, we’ll be there as soon as we can. [Turns to wife.] Isn’t that right, love? [Her, shaky voice] Oh. Yes loves. Course we will. And we’ve got sticks of rock for the kids, Janet. Will you tell them, dear? [Tapers off.]
And so on around the group. There’s Tamsin – Tammy – a forty-seven-year-old divorced stylist with a teenage son; she doesn’t seem to notice KC’s Estuary idiolect. Then there’s Pete and Marie, middle-aged couple out on a day trip to the beach for that bracing sea air with Pete’s mum, Greta; Betty, Vi (short for Violet), Linda and Prim (Primrose is the flower this one’s named for), a pair of Bridge partners out having tea and scones at a tearoom near the coach station when the sirens set up their mournful, persistent wail; David, local business man hoping (though he doesn’t say so) to see his younger mistress again, if only for one last romp, please God; and finally, Len, the driver, who didn’t sign up for any of this and who has a grown-up son and daughter and a granddaughter on the way, due imminently. We come back round to—
KC [turns camera to face himself]: And I’m Dan: apprentice bricklayer and all-round dude, and I ain’t never letting my boys forget who’s tha [cont. id.] boss, innit. [Cont. id.]
[Long pause. Face and voice drop, group looks uncomfortable.] But look, yeah. Not all of us made it… There’s three people. Two guys and a woman. [Female voice sobs off camera.] Down in the luggage hold. We put them there, cuz [id.], you know.
[Reaches in pocket, pulls out three small cards, looks at each in turn] Caroline Matheson [holds ID up to camera], Robert Murray [holds up ID] and Mike Ford [ditto]. Sorry. To their families, I mean. [Drops camera to side.]
[Shakes himself, to group, camera shows floor of coach] Okay, so I’m gonna get this baby uploaded everywhere, alright? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Send it to my whole address book, all that. Anyone who’s on social add me and share. BigBadDan2001. [Ends.]
The leaders searched the archives, such as they were. What with the age of his fellow passengers, KC – Dan-the-apprentice-bricklayer – didn’t get many takers. And anyway, most of the internet was gone, frozen in time in the space of a few hours. But the four old Bridge dears were on Twitter and Instagram somehow, the respective feeds the leaders pulled up full of the meanderings and unselfconscious biddy-isms of a generation that grew up pre-internet. Tammy, too, of course, and Len as well. Oh, and David the horny businessman, albeit furtively. Caroline Matheson and Robert Murray were hooked up to social too, but they were dead in the luggage hold. At any rate, there was no sign of the video anywhere in the archives.
Tavish, Swift and Pierce transcribed each video meticulously, and then set-to tidying up the handwritten ‘Stuff’ and putting all the scraps and pictures of scratched-out entries in chronological order, becoming more maudlin as the pile of transcripts mounted up.
KC video transcript, 12 March 2018, 19:08pm, Duration: 6m17s
KC/Dan [thin sounding cough, sunken eyes and sallow tone, chapped lips, skinny]: Please. Someone has to be seeing this. Nearly everyone’s gone from the cold. Just fell asleep and never woke up, except for Dave who went fucking barmy, raving like a fucking loon about some Becky chick and how he was gonna leave Sarah – I guess that’s his missis – and drank his own piss for fuck’s sake [coughs]. It’s just me, Tammy and Len left now. [Mumbling female voice off camera.]
[Shouts] No, Tammy, I can’t, right. I just fucking can’t. [Protracted coughing fit.] I… [cough] I… [hacking cough] Just… [heavy wheezing] Just no, okay? I won’t. I won’t do it. [Prolonged coughing.] As if this wasn’t bad enough for fuck’s sake. [gestures ahead of him, sound of lighter sparking off camera, more coughing followed by retching and hawking to one side]. Their hair. Jesus. I’m burning their fucking, cunting hair. [Cough.] I can’t…I won’t…Just no. Not gonna happen. Someone will come, I’m telling you. No, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t…[Trails off, sobbing interspersed with more coughing and retching.] [Ends.]
“Jesus effing wept,” said Tavish, as always his colourful language belying his stoic nature. “I can’t look at any fucking more of this right now.” Swift groaned her agreement, and Pierce pushed his netpad aside, relieved to cut the link for a beat. “That poor kid,” he said. “Those people.”
When the transcripts were completed they were uploaded as a package to the web. Horrifying – hope consuming – as it was, news was still news, and there wasn’t much of it to go around the handful of hubs dotted at intervals on the surface of the snowy globe that was once blue and verdant. Travel between them was all but impossible – the distances too great and the conditions too poor to navigate by. The only thing making communication possible at all was the neural web, a small network of collected humanity joined by an implanted neural interface that succeeded the thing known once as the internet. News was news, and people were glad of it. At least now there would be no more surges and flash frosts. Those things were behind and beneath them, and there to stay.
Eventually, the Scurves would die off or mutate to better fit the climate, but that was a way off, and in the meantime they rubbed along at an uneasy distance with the ‘Biners, the two remaining branches of humanity always suspicious of one another, never quite mixing. The Scurves got the Chinese whispers [contemporary idiom?] mix of the road and the bus and the lad. It was more a legend than anything their malnourished imaginations could muster. Except, perhaps, for the kids.
But stories round the night-banked fire were what kept the people from crumpling to the ground somewhere out on the tundra and never bothering to get up. They told them they were still human. With history.
The atmosphere in Pierce’s hut was hazy and full of potential sleep, perchance not to dream of things seen and words written down here over the last several days. Perchance to forget there had ever been a road. Pierce stared blankly into the dancing flames, head nodding; Tavish had left almost an hour ago, and the two stragglers hadn’t exchanged a word since, instead wallowing in the silence and their own morbid reveries.
Rousing herself, Swift sighed large and downed her drink – some kind of unforgiving corn liquor imported from a hydrostill in Hog’s Hub, near the foot of Great Static. She rose creaking to her feet, patting her thigh to summon Bones from her stupor on the hearthstone and lifting her torch from the sconce on the mantel. “Come on old girl,” she said. “Time to get back.” The dog rose with a grunt, shook itself and padded to its master’s side, glancing back at the fire before huffing and giving a brief, questioning shake of her tail. “’Fraid so girl,” said Swift. “Time to rip the plaster off, eh. G’night, Pierce.”
Pierce muttered something incoherent and gave a snort, mumbling darkly as he settled back into his corn-liquor-numbed slumber.
Swift opened the door, whistled for Bones and thrust her torch out into the night. It had taken an age to piece together the diaries of the lost child who became – morbidly – known over the neural web as Kid Cannibal, and it was an age she would rather forget, buried deep down under the tundra where all the dead things slept. The tundra she now crossed with her dog, headed for home and hearth.