“Islands in Space” (Excerpt)
The island colonies ringed the Earth like a swirling necklace of glittering white diamonds. Spinning like silver cartwheels in the empty blackness and subzero temperature of space. Islands of warmth and light and humanity. Home to the species Homo sapiens which had fled its dying planet in the hope of starting anew.
There was to be no return for many generations to come. Every creature and plant had fitted in somewhere, each dependent on all the rest, all dependent on the cycles and rhythms of the complex interweave of forces that kept in equilibrium the land, the oceans, the air.
It might take ten thousand years for the planet to regenerate itself. Or it might take as long as it took to create it in the first place. Or it might never happen. There was no God-given guarantee that it would ever again be a habitable place for the human species.
From the window of my study I could view the sliding stars through the transparent panels several thousand feet above. The Great Bear drifted by, pointing to the unseen Pole Star. As with the other colonies, Canton Island’s angle of declination was such that the Earth couldn’t be seen from inside the colony itself. It was possible to see the Earth (in rather uncomfortable circumstances) by taking a stroll along one of the six-kilometre-long thruways that connected Globe City to the outer torus. But the motion of the colony made the experience stomach-churning. Its constantly spinning orbit made the mother planet appear to whirl all over the sky, above and below the watcher, in a series of dizzying spirals.
The sad and tragic truth was — there was nothing to see. A muddy ball wreathed in haze. No brilliant blue oceans or dazzling white clouds. No landmasses or islands or polar caps. Just grey nothingness masking every feature, like a once-beautiful woman shamefully hiding her aged crumbling face behind a soiled veil.
At any given moment, I realised, we could be passing over Desert Range, yet failing to discern anything through the miasma. Somewhere far below was the Tomb, with its endless labyrinth of tunnels. Deep below on Level 3 was my office, inside it my desk, and inside that the drawer with my notebook locked away. Would it be discovered and read by future inhabitants a thousand years from now? If there were to be any future inhabitants, that is.
The thought of my notebook lying there, waiting to be found, brought back the recollection of Ruth, who had wondered what I was ‘scribbling’ and why I was so secretive about it. The reason was simple. Ruth had remarked on the UFOs in the northern latitudes that everyone had witnessed. Conditions at Desert Range were perfect for spotting them: a perfectly dark sky with no light pollution for a hundred miles. Several times I heard groups of people in the rec room speculating that the ascending spears of light were, or might be, missile trails or the exhausts of booster rockets. They rose straight up, on a fixed trajectory, before arcing into deep space; obviously they had to be the result of a command and control system. In other words, man-made.
Which led to febrile notions that they were in fact cargo-carrying shuttles heading for orbiting space platforms. When Ruth asked my opinion, I was vague and evasive. Because I was as certain as I could be that they weren’t missile trails or rocket exhausts at all. They were actually gigaton burps of methane emerging from deep within the Arctic permafrost. As it melted in the warming oceans, the permafrost ejected vast plumes into the atmosphere, some of which ignited to form incandescent flares. It was the Earth burping fireballs of flaming methane.
Perhaps I should have told Ruth and the others what I knew the ‘UFOs’ really were. I just didn’t have the heart to crush their illusions with the cruel truth …
There would always be victors and vanquished. The eternal law of survival of the fittest would still apply, as it always had. Though now the fittest would be those best able to thrive in an atmosphere with only the merest trace of oxygen. They might be methane-breathers, with a physiology alien to that of a human being. They might feed off dioxin, the deadliest poison known to man, and produce offspring that drank carbonic acid and breathed in sulphurous smog as if it were an invigorating sea breeze. There might be new forms of life so grotesque that it was beyond the wit of man to conjure them up, even in his most demented imaginings.
And while this was taking place, the species that had failed the semester course in planetary management would be gazing down at what had been theirs and was now lost, wilfully and cheaply thrown away. The Earth didn’t care. Nature was indifferent to the fate of a single species. The brute thrust of growth went on in other directions, explored other avenues. As far as the planet was concerned, humankind was only one more species to add to the long list of failed experiments.
Humankind might have made a greater impact than all the rest, created more havoc, interfered like a spoiled ignorant brat in things he didn’t understand, and yet the Earth abided.
It was the discussion with Young Nick at the fish farm that stirred the accumulated sediment of memories. We were standing on the walkways where you could look down into huge shallow tanks and see thousands of shimmering, darting fish. Some species — like the white amur, a Chinese delicacy — could grow to half a metre in length in less than a year. Other varieties were being cultivated that would grow to edible size in three months.
In the warm shallow water, fed with precisely the right amounts of phosphates and other nutrients, diatoms bloomed. Living on minerals, sunlight, and carbon dioxide, these microscopic one-celled plants provided food for the fish. Just as they had on Earth.
But on Earth, as I pointed out to my grandson, the diatoms had performed another, more important, function.
‘They gave us oxygen, Nick, which is in the air all around us. We breathe it in and it keeps us alive. Without it we die.’
Young Nick had a good look around, ‘I can’t see it.’
‘No, but it’s there. If it weren’t we wouldn’t be here.’
‘Stone-cold dead in de market.’
Young Nick pressed his chin into the plastic mesh, eyes swivelled down as far as they would go, watching the streaking fish.
‘Mummy said you and grandad, my other grandad, the one who’s dead, used to swim under the ice.’ Young Nick frowned up at me, the gridded imprint on his chin. ‘Ice is little, in squares.’ He indicated the size with finger and thumb. ‘I have some in my orange drink. Did you swim in the freezer?’
‘You’ve seen snow and ice on TV, haven’t you, Nick? Well, on Earth some parts of the land and ocean were once covered in deep snow and thick ice. Your other grandad and I used to dive in the sea, underneath the ice. It was colder than in the freezer, so we had to wear rubber suits to keep us warm.’
‘Was it dark?’
‘Yes.’ I smiled, remembering. ‘We had to take very big, very bright lights to see with.’
‘What were you looking for?’
‘Those tiny green plants down there.’
‘Is that all?’
That was a tough one. How to explain marine biology to a six-year-old in a few simple sentences. At the time it was research for its own sake, without any specific purpose. It was only later — months or years? — that the work we’d been doing at Halley Bay Station took on dramatic significance.
The sediment had been disturbed and memories began to float to the surface. About diving underneath the ice, for instance. Funny how I could recall every detail as vividly as if it were yesterday, when more recent events, even those that had happened yesterday, had been forgotten.
The cold in the Antarctic — Christ, I could feel it now! Cold enough to freeze gasoline and make steel as brittle as porcelain. How you had to stop breathing when adjusting instruments with your mittens off so that your fingers wouldn’t become frozen to the metal by the condensation from your own breath. One guy had lost so many layers of skin that his fingerprints had peeled off.
I leaned over the notebook, mulling through the pages in the lamplight. The pages were crammed to bursting with quotations I’d copied from books and articles over the years. I was searching for something, but didn’t know what exactly. I turned a page and came across this:
There is a goal, one that has the potential to unite every man, woman and child on this planet, which, if reached, will enable them to build at last that ‘land fit for heroes.’ A home which they can be proud they helped to build, one in which they can live in harmony with the wild things, retaining the beauty of the mountains, the lakes, the rivers, the fields, the vast oceans and the sky.
But this needs effort and requires a genuine desire on the part of every one of us to make this dream reality.
Something like that was needed to set the tone, I reckoned, as a prologue or the opening passage. Then I reconsidered; on further reflection, the quote might be better at the end — as a summing up, a plea perhaps, an admonition. Or even a warning.