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Human Island - Part I
While making a documentary about a sacrificial ritual, a grieving mother comes to terms with the untimely loss of her daughter.
First time here? There Is Hope is a climate fiction series I email to subscribers. Each short story stands on its own but I recommend that you start by reading the first story, Human Island, here👇.
Human Island - Part I
The jade-green kelp forest floats in the crystal-clear water. Lying on her back, Nova allows the swift currents to guide her through the corridors lined by algae stems, stretching their slender arms toward the sunlight. When she closes her eyes, the chlorophyll green light sips through her eyelids, coloring her thoughts, and she floats like this for a while, wrapped in the ocean’s waves, enjoying the silence. A vibration wakes her from her reverie, and she opens her eyes to read the bright orange message displayed on her diving helmet visor: You are running out of oxygen. But she isn’t ready to leave the underwater paradise and return to the dust. Instead, she flips on her belly and starts to swim. Fast. Faster. Faster!
The kelp stems tremble in the currents formed by her vigorous strokes, and myriad tiny creatures scatter in all directions. The kelp forest is thriving with life, filling her broken heart with a joy she hadn’t felt in a long time. Soon, the warning on her visor blinks in red, angry letters: Your oxygen is out. And she greedily inhales the last bits of oxygen and swims to the ocean’s surface, rising with the kelp forest. She feels dizzy when she bursts out of the water and lifts her visor to breathe in the hot, stale, dusty air.
The colonies of the Japanese seaweed farmers are stringed like beads on the shore of the rising Atlantic Ocean. Nova swims amongst floating homes and children cooling off from the midday sun underneath suspended seaweed factories. When she steps out of the water, the sand is burning under her feet, so she runs to her flying pod parked next to the ancient Data Center, the main energy source of the colony and the spying eye of The Cooperatives. She takes off her diving suit, stuffs it in the cargo compartment, jumps on the pilot seat and flips on the engine switch. On the dashboard, there’s a picture of a young girl with long chestnut brown hair. Nova checks the air quality index on her smartwatch: the daily CO2 is 731 ppm.
The cabin cools off as the pod lifts into the white sky. Beyond the colonies, bare dusty land stretches to the ghost cities of the long-gone industrial world, sprawling inland like crippled giants caked in dust and baking in the scorching heat. Outside the cities lies the khaki Iberian desert.
Deep in the desert, a long cloud of dust moves like a giant worm, and Nova flies in its direction. The dust cloud clears somewhat from close up, revealing a long trail of people walking. Nova lands the pod in the sand, turns off the engine and watches the weathered dusty silhouettes wrapped in the ubiquitous green fabrics made of seaweed, the plant that feeds and clothes the world. Young and old stream by, some carrying luggage on their back, pulling carts, pushing electric strollers, bicycles or strangely shaped vehicles made from scrap parts.
On the backseat of the narrow cabin, Nova’s travel bag lays open, revealing a tangle of cables and boxes, her filming gear. With one hand, she pulls out a gearbox; with the other, she fetches a hand control pad from her pocket and switches on her virtual dashboard. Filming bots crawl out of the gearbox and onto her arm: two spiders, four cockroaches, two baby turtles and five mini-drones, her birds, put the whole cabin in motion.
‘Guys, you need to get out of here.’
Nova pulls up her mask, opens the pilot window and hushes the drones out. On her virtual pad, she activates a map of the area, and with two taps, she dispatches her bots and drones in different directions. Soon, streaming of the long caravan from different angles and perspectives upload to the virtual dashboard. Nova wraps a green scarf around her head, picks up her filming camera and microphone and jumps out of the pod just as a wrinkly man wearing a red turban walks by.
‘Good afternoon. My name is Nova Novikov, and I’m filming a documentary about the human sacrifice. Can I ask you some questions?’ Nova says.
‘Do you have some water?’ the man says.
‘Sure,’ Nova says.
She unbuckles her water bottle and hands it to the man.
‘Thank you,’ the man says, taking a long sip. ‘How long until the Japanese colony?’
‘At this pace, about two hours. How long have you been walking?’ Nova says.
The man takes another sip of water and returns the bottle.
‘Ten days, but my food and water rations ran out two days ago. I don’t mind the hunger, but walking without water in this heat is challenging,’ the man says.
Nova digs through her handbag and takes a bag of seaweed chips.
‘It’s all I have left,’ Nova says.
The old man’s eyes fill up with tears.
‘Wasting food and water on an old man,’ the man says.
Nova pats him on the shoulder.
‘It’s my duty and pleasure to share,’ Nova says.
‘More meat on these old bones for the sacrifice,’ the man says, chewing on a cracker.
‘Are you one of the chosen ones?’ Nova says.
‘I am, indeed,’ the man says.
‘What made you volunteer?’ Nova says.
The man looks into Nova’s eyes.
‘There’s still much to live and die for in this world,’ the man says.
Nova stops in her tracks, and the old man smiles as he walks away, soon disappearing into the crowd.
At sunset, the pale white sky blushes like the powdered cheeks of a Geisha. Nova’s pod hovers above the colony’s outskirts, where the pilgrims prepare to rest for the night. Rivers of sweat are running down her dusty face, and she wipes them off with a green cloth before she commences the descent maneuvers. Once her pod lands, she lowers the pilot window and breathes in the salty moisture of the ocean breeze that feels like a balm to her lungs. Soon it will cool off a bit, and she can go for a swim. But in the meantime, she enjoys the happy screams of children playing in the colony and the soothing sound of the waves breaking at the shore, a sign that this side of the ocean was still alive and at a safe distance from the dead marine zones growing like cancer, bubbling hydrogen sulfide poison into the windless air. One day, these waves shall also be still. One day, the whole world shall be still. It was an equally scary and luring thought.
A gentle knock startles Nova from her reverie, and the friendly face of the colony’s Counselor, Aia Santos, peeks at her through the open window.
‘Good evening, Nova-san. Is everything alright?’ the Counselor says.
‘Good evening, counselor. All good. It’s been a long and hot day, and I need a swim and a good night’s sleep,’ Nova says and flips on the lights of her pod. The Counselor smiles with her startling aquamarine almond-shaped eyes.
‘And perhaps some dinner?’ the Counselor says.
Nova’s stomach growls in approval, much to her embarrassment, and the two women laugh.
‘I’m sorry for taking the colony’s rations,’ Nova says and takes the cloth bag offered by the Counselor with her head bowed.
‘No need to apologize; it’s the least we can do. Thank you for making this documentary,’ the Counselor says. ‘Have a good night.’
‘Good night, Counselor,’ Nova says.
The pale light of an almost full moon glitters over the dark waters reminding Nova of the nights spent on the Dust Road on her way to the Iberian Peninsula. The smuggling caravan would rest during the day and travel after dark. Sometimes, during the restless days, Nova dreamt of her daughter. In her dreams, Ania was excited to meet the Japanese seaweed farmers, swim through the kelp forests, meet the pilgrims, visit the wooden shrine, and see the sharks. At the end of those dreams, she would wake up alone in her tent, drenched in sweat, her head swimming in a haze of heat and tiredness. She touches the picture of the young girl from her board, opens a small compartment holding a blue urn. Was there really anything left to live and die for in this world? She didn’t know, but there she was, a grieving woman and the ghost of her daughter at the shores of a slowly dying ocean, yet still looking for hope.
The next day, Nova climbs out of her pod at sunrise, ready for the last shooting day. A Cooperative surveillance drone buzzes over her head, but she ignores it. As a citizen of the North Colony Alliance, she is used to being watched day and night. However, outside of the NCA, surveillance drones were quite a rarity and finding them in the remote Japanese colonies took her by surprise. Her filming gear is ready, and she taps her virtual map sending two of her birds to the camping site of the pilgrims, two to the wooden shrine, and one to the ocean. The turtles she sends in the water to surveil the kelp forests. With the rest of the bots squirming at her feet, she walks to the first filming site of the day: the wooden shrine.
The protective glass dome that encloses the shrine and the Japanese dry garden with rivers of raked gravel and pathways of stepping stones stands tall in the landscape. The morning breeze smells like algae, and Nova enjoys its freshness. Out of reflex, she checks the air quality index on her smartwatch: the daily CO2 is 729 ppm. Nova’s lips stretch into a smile, and she turns her hand to look at the tattoo inked on her inner wrist: a bee made of five honeycombs.
‘Are you a believer?’
Startled, Nova turns around and looks at a teenage boy with black, shoulder-length hair. The bright colors of his silk kimono remind Nova of a documentary about butterflies she had watched as a child. Like every kid in the NCA, Nova had grown up experiencing Old Earth in VR educational programs, deeply feeling the loss of a world she could still see but not touch, smell or taste.
‘I used to be. Now I am not so sure anymore,’ Nova says.
The teenage boy opens his palms, revealing one of Nova’s birds.
‘I think this belongs to you,’ the teenager says.
One of the bird’s wings was torn off, and the other was flapping mechanically, trying to fly.
‘It collided with a surveillance drone, didn’t it?’ Nova says.
The teenager nods. Nova takes the wounded bird in her palm and switches it off. Damn those surveillance drones! She brushes away some grains of sand and checks the drone’s electric signals on her control pad: it’s completely dead. She had only four birds left and couldn’t afford to lose another one, as spare parts were hard to come by, even on the black market of the Dust Road.
‘Thank you,’ Nova says.
The teenager looks at her with the saddest eyes Nova has ever seen.
‘I’m not sure why you came here, but today won’t restore your faith. Today we pay for the sins of our ancestors,’ the teenager says and walks away.
Seeing young people so disillusioned with life and the human race was painful.
But living with the consequence of the biophobic lifestyle practiced by humans for the past thousand years took work. She slips the damaged drone into her pocket, turns on her control pad and watches the live stream from her bots. The pilgrim camp is waking up, and the turtle bots swim through kelp forests out in the ocean. There’s unusual activity around the bots as if the entire ecosystem was on alert. Then, a large shadow appears at the end of the kelp corridor and slowly approaches her turtles. It’s a shark! Hypnotized, Nova watches the splendid animal glide through the algae when the door of the glass dome opens, and the Counselor steps out and stops next to Nova.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ the Counselor says.
They both study the dull grey shark lazily moving its muscular upturned tail. There is something ferocious about it: the impenetrable skin roughened by toothlike scales, a pointed snout extending forward over a crescentic mouth filled with sharp triangular teeth, and lidless dark blue eyes that stare at the camera.
‘Awe-inducing and terrifying,’ Nova says.
At the back of the corridor, the turtle drone catches a glimpse of the fusiform shapes of four more sharks before the tail of the first shark sends it away twirling.
‘There’s five of them!’ Nova says.
‘Two females and three males,’ the Counselor says.
‘But where did they come from?’ Nova says and turns on her filming camera.
‘We don’t know. Several colony divers were inspecting the kelp forests five years ago when the unthinkable happened. That first year it was a single male shark. But the following year, it returned with two females and two younger males,’ the Counselor says. ‘They never stay longer than a solar term. It’s because they don’t trust humans, and there is also not much for them to eat here.’
‘Is this why you started the sacrifices?’ Nova says.
The Counselor pulls a white handkerchief from her kimono sleeve and dabs her forehead.
‘Partly,’ the Counselor says. ‘The colony underwent mass hysteria for two weeks when the first shark arrived. People would free-dive into the ocean to witness the miracle, to offer their bodies as food to the sea god. The word spread, and the following year when the five sharks arrived, hundreds of people flooded our colony. They went into the water and drove the sharks into a feeding frenzy daily for a week. Finally, we had to stop them.’
Nova pictures the kelp forests with bloodied waters and severed human limbs floating amongst algae leaves.
‘The Council decided there would be an annual ritual sacrifice with five people from the colony families. But, of course, the chosen ones must volunteer, and each family can only have one volunteer every seven years. Today, the self-sacrifice inspired by the arrival of the sharks is honored for the third year,’ the Counselor says.
Then she bows and gestures towards the entrance to the glass dome.
Human Island - Part II
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