A story at the end of the world
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.”
Robert Frost, 1920
* * *
“Is it the last?” He shouted, the ice-wind ripping the words from his lips as soon as they were spoken. “Is this the last one?”
“One more will try to make the crossing sir,” the soldier, wincing as the sea-spray stung his eyes, “God knows how she’ll dock. Will you wait sir?”
“Yes. You Sergeant?”
Alasdair looked into the young man’s eyes and got his answer.
“Things are that bad?”
“It’s moving fast sir. You´ll see tonight.”
“I see already: their clothing.”
The soldier nodded as the refugees huddled past, some in clothes flecked with grey from ash, some black from soot, some brown with scorch marks.
“The fire has come north.”
* * *
It had begun in ’28, the year after the first major famines from the ‘weather shift’, as it was now called. The response was called “Joint Operation Bloom”. The President of the United States signed an accord with the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the President of the Russian Federation to “counter the clear and present danger of loss of produce and land to climatic instability and rising sea levels caused by rising carbon dioxide levels of unspecific cause.” It was hailed as the greatest feat of cooperation in human history, in which an Armada of over 1,500 giant warships put out to sea and headed to the Southern Ocean to save the planet.
The plan was simple: over half of the Earth’s carbon was captured by the microbial floating plant life of the seas: the phytoplankton. So, the great powers decided to harness this natural force using science as saddle and battle cruisers as reins. After all, this was the same ‘science’ that defeated SARS-CoV-2 in 2021, and then the far more lethal H10N3 human strain of avian influenza two years later, and then SARS-CoV-3 after that.
The European Union had protested, but it was a husk of a thing, having dissolved in all but name three years before following the greatmigration crisis from Africa and Asia. Food ran out, people fled, and the destination countries closed their borders on one another like dominoes falling. The United Kingdom was untouched, though, as the shift of the Gulf Stream turned the English Channel into another North Sea, rendering it impassable to most ferries, let alone small vessels.
The plan was that this united navy would seed a genetically altered strain of phytoplankton into the ocean which could fix its own nitrogen from the air, the main limiting factor in plankton growth, allowing the microbes to sink the CO2 from the air safely into the sea. The process could not escalate out of control, the biologists said with hubristic authority, because this “carbon soaked carpet of the sea” would run to its third limiting factor after carbon and nitrogen: iron. It would be ruled and regulated by the distribution of mineral iron by the same ships it was seeded from, and so the vast fleet would guard it against exponential growth.
No one thought about how the specificity of scientific disciplines had long ago stopped communication between them, so no one thought to confer with the geologists about this. That said, the ones who might have had seen the danger were distracted by the more imminent threat: the movements of, and underneath, the Earth’s crust. A decade of melting ice had so relieved the guarding pressures and inhibiting weights that magma flowed where it had not flowed for aeons. The result was a series of volcanic eruptions which shook both hemispheres in rapid succession, pumping iron-rich ash into the air in a tonnage measurable in the tens of trillions.
Atmospheric oxygen rose by a mere on percent and the grasslands of Africa and arable fields of Asia caught light. As that figure approached two percent, the global order began to collapse. A ravenous North Korean Army crossed the Demilitarised Zone, marching in lockstep across the most heavily mined strip of land on Earth, ignoring catastrophic losses, to secure food from the South.
Japan was the first to respond, prompting a series of interlocking alliances to fall into place, from China on down, escalating the conflict into a wide-ranging Asian ground war. It was, at least, conventional. The 47th President of the United States had reverted to his preferred stance of isolationism and no one wanted to bring their nuclear arsenal into play, so the gloves were kept on. Meanwhile, the US needed all the troops they had to maintain order in their own streets.
* * *
Red walked back from the port to the abandoned houses in Harwich and switched on his mobile phone and called, hoping that the flickering irregular signals would bounce back and forth through storm and ash clouds of an atmosphere so thick left every waking up with the taste of dust and flame in the their mouths, to see if she would answer.
* * *
“What is it?”
“It’s my heart, my love?”
She opened the heart-shaped locket and inside was tiny black square.
“And what’s inside this heart of yours.”
“A Hornet. You remember we lost her in Salzburg that night, in the snows. It tracks her movements.”
“I’m not sure I like that. I don’t like to put a collar on her. After all, Aleka is my dog.”
He looked into Anira’s green-grey eyes and, unable to hold them, looked down.
“Komm her, mein Schätze.”
The dog padded over and placed her long muzzle against his leg. He slipped the collar over her head with its burden.
“I’m only going to Austria. I need to see my family.”
“I know, and I wish you wouldn’t. Get them to fly here.”
“They won’t. They think you are being mad about this. And besides, they are from the Alps: that is their haven and all they know.”
* * *
Red had worked as a foreign correspondent for various newspapers, and before that had served in Mali and Sierra Leon. He had been in enough tough spots to know when trouble was in the air. Paranoia, to him, was to be sure the worst was going to happen, and naivete was to be sure it would not. He believed his own sanity lay in remaining agnostic. And his safety in planning for both.
However, even he could not have predicted the rapidity of the collapse, starting with every flights in Europe being grounded within a few days of the volcanic battery unleashed. Anira did not make it out.
* * *
Red sat in the garden in cool October air to get away from the oppressive atmosphere in the old house. His parents were old and frail, and that had long before robbed them of lightness and joy, he reminded himself. Although there was something in their eyes now that was different as they discussed the news. And the rumours. And the power-cuts.
His father had been a businessman in the City until he had retired to the house where he had been born outside Maldon on the coast of Essex. There was still something rustic to the old man, though, some memory in the blood, and he had taken not just to gardening but growing food. Perhaps he had always known it was coming.
“Come north. You won’t last here.” Red said.
“Why won’t I last, they say it will get colder now?” His father asked.
“That doesn’t matter. Without the Gulf Stream it will get drier. More fuel, more oxygen, more fires. The crops will stop. The animals will die in the fields. And the people… they say the government wants to re-centre at York and are negotiating with the Scots.”
“Good luck to them. We’ll stick it out here. It’s emptying out and the seas are getting harder to cross. Running is a young man’s game.”
“I’m not young.”
“No, you’re not old either. I am. Take the car and the old shotgun. Things might get rough.”
His mother came out at that moment, with tears in her eyes.
“The cathedral in Chartres. It is in flames. The people have fled. That beauty is burning.”
His father looked out over the fields.
“Too much oxygen in the air. It’s too dry here.” Red said.
“We’ll take our chances.” His voice and face set like stone in profile.
* * *
Red woke to the silence of abandonment. Only two years before he had come to Harwich with Anira to show her the coast. It had been depressing enough then.
He walked out of the ruined house and that was when he saw the sky to the west was the colour of blood, split every so often by a forked tongue of lightning. He drove to the port as fast as he could.
* * *
Hot winds and cold spray buffeted him as he stared out to the great beleaguered ship, tossed on waves that made it seem a child’s toy.
Slowly, agonisingly, her engines worked against the sea and brought her into the relative calm of the harbour mouth.
That was when he saw a single great wave cutting across the ocean surface towards it. He stood unmoving as it picked up the great steel structure of the ferry and hurled it against the side of the port in a roaring and screaming protest of distressed steel.
He could see the people emerging onto the deck and throwing themselves into the sea.
Then he heard the one sound that cut through all others, the only sound that was neither inanimate destruction nor human screams: the bark of a dog.
Running now, he fumbled with his phone to find the unused application as he closed the gap between him and the sea. He could see two flashing dots on the screen, and knew one was him. He changed direction, sprinting towards the bow, bringing the two dots into alignment.
He dropped phone, his shoes, and the heaviest of his clothing and dove into the dark wilderness of the water.
* * *
It was chaos, but he could still make out the drowning people, and avoided them with regret. He could only save one person.
Again he heard the barking break through and he struck out, praying out loud as he did so.
* * *
He reached a spot some distance from the ship, which had by now rolled on its side, and a wave brought him face-to-face with Aleka. Immediately recognising him, the dog licked his face, not with affection but rather a desperation. And having done so she turned and swam in the opposite direction. He followed and a few metres later he found Anira disoriented, flailing and clearly at the end of her strength.
He pulled her towards him and as she recognised him, she smiled as though she was already saved. He took Aleka by the collar and pulled her into their circle, the locket glinting at him as he did so.
“Hold her collar. I’ll pull you both back.”
It took everything he had, but he pulled them both along to the quay and along until eventually they found the steps on which they dragged themselves out.
* * *
In the car, the heaters full on, they sped along the motorway north.
“Where are we going,” she asked, holding the shivering animal in her lap as though it were a puppy rather than a sixty-pound dog.
He turned to her, asking,
“Does it matter?”
“No. Not now.”
She smiled at that, like she had smiled in the water.
Known for immersion in a subject matter - he trained as a Method actor - in his book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight he became a bullfighter, in The Bulls Of Pamplona, he became a bull-runner. For The Land Of Wolves...