by Mike Cook.
It was the last day on earth, and it looked like it was going to rain. This was the sort of observation Sam would usually make a little mental note of for a later conversation with someone, but catastrophic global disasters made it hard to find someone you could talk to who wasn’t already sick of having lived through it.
He whipped his shoulder slightly, and the camera hooked over his shoulder swung on its strap gently into his hands, lens extending and embedded mic unfurling as it sensed his fingers on the grips. Looking up at the hilltop ahead, across the yellowing grass field, he could already see a few dozen people gathered, and another dozen tiny figures clomping towards it from all directions. He prayed he’d find at least one non-druid.
Snap. A wide shot. The screen on the back of the camera offered a few different framings, compositional adjustments and colour rebalancings. In one, the mid-afternoon sky was a refreshingly crisp blue, like winters from a past he’d forgotten. He’d deal with the edit later.
Catastrophic global disasters were also a bad time to piss off your editor.
Someone - probably Sophie, or that asshole Xander - was taking his place, right now, in a rooftop garden party in central London, interviewing engineers about the implications the operation had for food production or whatever, and getting snappy quotes from celebrities about how they believe in a brighter future. And here he was, stumbling up and down earth mounds in the sweaty English winter, dragging his arse up an Iron Age fort or Bronze Age village or whatever the hell time this place was from, to go interview a bunch of hippies so the 9 o’clock drop can tag a funny little appendix to Xander’s big award-winning streamable. The history of this planet being rewritten, and his mark on it was going to be a little goofy clip with a joke on it for people to drop and laugh at.
The fort-village-hill was surrounded by concentric circles of earth, built and packed high around the hill, each inner ring getting higher as the hill rose with it. It looked like an angry god had dropped a huge rock into a lake made of soil and frozen the rippling earth in place. As stupid as it had looked from a hundred metres away, its ancient utility became clear when you actually tried to climb it, as Sam struggled up the third ring of earth almost losing his footing and narrowly avoiding landing palms-and-camera-first into a patch of stray, dry bramble.
“You know there’s a path just around the bend here. You’re about three thousand years late if you’re here to storm the place.”
He looked up to see a skinny, bald figure on the lip of the next mound up, staring down at him. The figure leant down and offered a hand.
“Come on up with you.”
The next mound, it turned out, was the last. A soft, flat incline stretched out ahead, nothing between here and the top but some oak trees, where most of the people had gathered out of the sun. He looked back the way he’d come, and saw the clouds beginning to gather a little, the promise of rain slowly nearing. His rescuer stood patiently while he gathered himself.
“Walk with you? I see you’re here to record the big moment too. I’m Max.”
“Sam. Not quite recording the moment - I’m here to interview people. Get some opinions.”
They began strolling towards the trees.
An awkward question, since a yes sort of meant you worked for a government, but a no meant you probably worked for some insipid media brand fronted by two children who prefaced every story with an assurance that Guys, you aren’t gonna believe this. Which, unfortunately for Sam, was true.
“Yeah I don’t watch it either.”
“Well, nuking the atmosphere certainly qualifies as fresh, hot and real,” Max offered charitably, “You should get some good stuff today, it’s brought all sorts out.”
They were at the tree clump now, a small cluster of oaks that had perhaps once been part of a larger thicket, protecting the iron-bronze village-fort on top of the hill, and were now barely holding on in the heat. The view at the edge was magnificent, if bleak - the fields stretched for miles, crisscrossed with thick black scars where hedgerows had once grown. Most of the fields sparkled white and silver, an earlier year’s attempt to try and reflect sunlight back off the ground. A few fields had a soft green glow where the winter climate had allowed mosses and some hardier grasses to survive. Up close it would be a congealed mess of soil and decay, but from a distance it almost looked verdant again.
“Actually, if you want to talk to someone, I got a friend here. She worked with the British guys on the project. Wanna meet her?”
They ducked into the shade and immediately felt the benefit. Gently stepping over the edge of a picnic, and a marauding toddler in a Santa hat and shorts, Sam followed Max across the crowd, mentally ranking each one in terms of their suitability as a bystander interview candidate. Too weird. Too normal. Too English. Passing the crow, Max began waving at a dark-haired woman who sat leaning back on a dark stump, with binoculars around her neck. She waved back and got to her feet.
“It’s so great to see you again.” Hug. Cheek. Shoulder squeeze. And then the polite acknowledgement of the stranger.
“Meena, this is Sam, they’re here to talk to some people about the op, works for FHR. Reckon it’d be alright to chat for a minute?”
“Oh, yeah, of course.” More politeness. It was clearly not alright. But Sam was already in interviewer mode, upbeat positivity and robotic fixation, which means he didn’t care.
“That’s fantastic, thanks a lot. Max said you worked on the project? Are you a biologist, astrophys?”
Sam squeezed the camera grip, the lens collapsed like a folding umbrella, and the microphone unfurled itself into a more prominent position.
“You mind?” He gestured with the camera. She shook her head. No-one ever said they minded, more politeness.
“Okay, well, let’s start with that, so tell me a little bit about yourself, and your involvement with the project.”
“My name’s Meena Chaudhary, I’m a farmer and amateur ecologist,” and then she laughs, “And I spent about three years begging the IGC not to do what we’re about to watch them do.”
“So you were against atmospheric intervention in general?”
She nodded, and gestured up to the fields in the distance.
“Absolutely. We’ve already lost so much of our natural world to processes we understood, to things we knew were happening. Now we’re about to do something that we don’t fully understand the effects of, it’s going to cost us the planet as we know it. To me that’s scarier than the problems currently in front of us.”
“I suppose people might point out that we’re going to lose the planet in both cases, action or no action, isn’t that right?”
“Not doing this doesn’t mean we do nothing. That’s been the IGC’s framing all along. This or nothing. And so…” She trailed off, the implied end of that sentence still being a few minutes away from happening.
This didn’t feel like anything. Meena mostly seemed bitter about something that, by the time anyone saw this footage, would have already happened. It would be better to go and interview a kid or an old veteran or something. Was she angry enough? That might play. But…
“What would you have wanted to do instead? What would you be asking the IGC to do right now if they were willing to listen?”
She laughed, but this time not in a funny way. “Too late to call it off now anyway, isn’t it? I mean, literally, shit’s in the air.” She faked a watch-check, that would’ve been nice to have on video, why hadn’t he put video on too. She sighed. “It’s a laundry list, y’know? Most of it’s, like, communities doing what they need, and having what they need to do it. New housing technology. New farming technology. This planet is busted, but it’s the planet we have now, the one we made, and I wanna live with that planet and learn to face what we’ve done to it.” Quote that bit. “Instead we’re gonna fire ten billion tons of dust into the sky and hope for the best. And if that happens to fuck you, well, sorry. It’s gonna make the right people very comfy. A hundred pricks in suits got together and made a decision for twelve billion people, and that’s that.” Did they bleep out ‘prick’ any more? He couldn’t remember. They definitely bleeped out ‘fuck’.
It was important as the interviewer not to become a participant, but you also had to guide the tone, and this suddenly felt interesting, something he might even be able to convince an editor to put in the main drop, but it needed a closer, and that meant pushing just a little further than any reasonable person would.
“The IGC chairman suggested it was bitterness that’s driving people to oppose these measures, and that every big decision like this has losers. Are you just bitter, Meena?”
Max, who had faded out of Sam’s focus once the interview started, suddenly snapped back in with an objecting huff, and Meena raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth to reply.
But the reply, whatever it was, was cut off by a shout. Sam snapped to look where it came from. The sky was exploding. It looked exactly like every model, every simulation, every press packet had said it would, and yet it seemed less real, somehow, to be experiencing it first hand than it had to see the VR documentaries explaining it. The adrenaline of witnessing history hit him hard, anxious suddenly that he was not paying attention enough, as if he might one day be asked to recount it to someone in a final examination based on his life. A red wound had opened up in the sky, a perfect sphere of crimson smoke erupting directly to the west. A sulphur compound. Then another followed it, this time white, billowing out of a new hole in the sky, like the heavens had sprung a leak. Titanium dioxide.
More shrieks behind him, and he span around to see the same happening on the other side, colourful smoke flowers of red and white blossoming into the sky, only growing bigger. And Sam remembered, he remembered being eight years old, lying on the beach with his aunt, thunderous rainbow-coloured fireworks exploding above the pier in the night sky, coughing smoke up all around them, throwing wild burning lights out into the dark, so big and loud and present that he felt like the sky could never recover from it. All gone, minutes later.
The spheres in the sky were getting bigger. They were not going. They never would. He felt the tears rolling down his face, suddenly, as he beheld their impossible scale, the gruesome extent of everything they represented, every mistake that had led to this decision, and every future moment robbed, every dream extinguished by it. And then, exactly as every model, simulation and press packet had said it would happen, it happened. Something was wrong with the sun.
It was already low and harsh in the January sky, and now it was shimmering, fading softer and then brighter again. The blue-white light was yellowing gently, like old paper, bathing the trees and the grass and the people in an orange haze as the smoky clouds began to mix in the stratosphere, as if the scene was being automatically rebalanced by his Nikon’s image correction profiles. A dramatic photo filter pulled over the earth like a death shroud.
He turned back to Meena and Max, who were embracing in the eternal twilight. Max was muttering something comforting to Meena, who was weeping. And all around them, the gathered crowd had risen to their feet, a minute’s silence forced by shock and terror, staring out into the horizon, watching it darken for the last time.