Far From Everywhere
William Henry Bluefield dressed silently so not to awaken his wife. It was early—the Antarctic sun a mere glimmer creeping above the horizon, eventually crossing the sky in a long low arc—and a cold blustery wind blew in from the distant mountains. In the past Edith would have gotten up before him and had breakfast waiting on the table: eggs and toast, a cup of piping hot coffee, real coffee; and his stepson, Geordie, would have already begun his piano lessons in the far back room, the one William now used as a library and den ... his last refuge.
He mumbled, acknowledging to himself his own annoyance. Edith seldom rose before eight or nine these days, and her list of daily complaints and disgruntlements would have amounted to near blasphemy to her mother, Margaret—dear old Maggie—so stout and forward, so full of vigor nothing ever slowed her down. William Henry missed her.
And then there was stepson Geordie ... yes, Geordie, with his scraggly beard and post-adolescent moodiness and whining, his compulsive mediocrity, all woven seamlessly into his pervasive decline since dropping out of Queen Maud University. Geordie ... the acorn who fell too close to his mother’s tree, or perhaps it was his father’s, although William had never known the man.
William set the menu dials for breakfast: synthetic eggs, toasted bread made from Green Zone wheat, with a cup of sea-grass tea. Real coffee or tea was difficult to find and very expensive, and the fake stuff too unpleasant to endure. Breakfast was hardly worth the effort. Not that the food was unhealthy or inedible—it included all necessary minerals and vitamins, and kept a body going, much the way gasoline fuels an engine—it was just perpetually bland, lacking texture, like eating chemically flavored sawdust mixed with liquid Styrofoam.
William’s house—family living quarters as the Ministry called them—stood on a flat ridge surrounded on three sides by seventy other houses, which were identical except for minor additions added on by succeeding occupants. Twenty kilometers beyond the houses, Mount Rex’s ridgeline pushed its craggy, snowcapped peaks skyward.
The mountain’s dark brown slopes and the dome of icy blue sky offered the only relief from the endless shades of snow and ice. During stormy days clouds blanketed the world—no blues, no browns, nothing beyond vast bichromatic panoramas of white and pewter-gray.
William disliked the Ministry’s housing tracts; for they held no aesthetic appeal whatsoever, unimaginative to the point of vulgarity, and rife with cookie-cutter sameness. The Styroblock walls and angular, single-pitched roofs contrasted gracelessly against the landscape and distant backdrop of majestic mountain peaks. He stood outside, enjoying in the morning light reflecting from the mountains, the fiery orange and amber edges of the high crags and steep ridges. The wind had subsided, and to the seaward side less than three kilometers away, he watched the twinkling outskirts of Ukam coming to life. By olden standards, it was a small city. A steamy vapor stained the blueness above the inland end of town, above the atomic-power-generation complex with its concrete containments, giant heat exchangers and vertical towers.
Beside the bay, beyond the wide snowfields, were vague remnants of the old whaling port. Unhappily, perhaps, some old men remembered stories of those bygone times, those decades when distant ancestors slaughtered whales and turned the glacial-blue seas to red. William could not ignore that history, more so than most, for his great-grandfather, three generations departed, had captained a whaling ship near the turn of the nineteenth century. William checked his watch. The first underground shuttle would leave the station in fifteen minutes, allowing him time for a leisurely walk. During winter’s dark and sub-zero months, those endless months when even the vibrations of molecules slowed, only the most hardy and experienced went anywhere above ground.
For William, even after all these years, Ukam remained foreign to him in many ways, a strange city without historical roots, lacking any sense of culture or a spirit of an era. It was, of course, hyper-modern and filled the needs of its population; yet beneath the façade of livability, he knew it for what it really was, an intricate system that functioned as a utilitarian mechanism, sterile and monotone, bereft of charm and architectural style.
Charm and style ... the very thought made William chuckle. Life in Antarctica offered compensations, not least of which was sanctuary, but other than that a purgatorial feeling hovered over the cities and suburban landscapes.
Winters were monotonous beyond description, a dull uniformity in time and space. During the transformational years, migration to the frozen continent was not forced on William; in fact, he had welcomed it, even fought for it. A younger man might have been elated—at least in the beginning—but William was older now, and he had learned the hard way, learned that the best dreams are not necessarily those that come true. Still, a man can dream and build his castles in the sky ... and perhaps he must.
He looked away from the mountain peaks. Problems crept into his mind, cluttering his thoughts, problems he usually kept at bay, although sometimes it seemed they had an intrusive will of their own. The Ross and Ronne Ice Shelves were retreating faster than the Bureau of Atmosphere and Weather had predicted, and this was negatively affecting the Green Zones. Most scientists had believed that after the initial catastrophic changes during the twenty-first century, the planet would stabilize, particularly Antarctica and the far northern spaces of Europe, Greenland, and North America. Some predictions proved accurate; others had not, and quiet uncertainty gripped the citizens of Antarctica.
William took the long escalator to the underground station and swiped his transportation card through the gate scanner. A dozen or so people were there, some sitting, some reading, others milling about. Most commuters preferred the second shuttle that arrived thirty-five minutes later.
A sign above the entrance had emergency instructions, in case of fire in the monorail tunnels, though in Antarctica—at least in the natural realm—fire was unheard of: there was nothing to burn. During the past hundred years the same truism applied to almost the entire old world. From just below the 40th Parallel in the south to the 60th in the northern hemisphere, little remained other than wind-blown deserts, oceans of sand dunes and sun-baked desolation.
Perhaps, William thought, it was the grand satirical paradox. A planet once swarming with humans who used too much of everything—who burned too much coal and oil, gasoline, diesel and natural gas, incinerated rain forests, dug and scratched and gobbled—suddenly, in terms of geologic time, found themselves in a bleak and inhospitable world with nothing left to burn.
* * *
The jet-copter rose into the vast blue sky, swinging seaward and leaving the Antarctic Peninsula for Queen Maud, a larger city on the western edge of Princess Martha Coast. There were no freeways connecting Ukam and Queen Maud, and only narrow snow roads cutting along the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf. Occasionally, above Berkner Island, William saw polar bears and flocks of penguins made nervous and likely to scatter as the jet-copter passed overhead. On the shores of the Weddell Sea, he saw a few scattered villages of the Kanit and Droc tribes, relocated natives from the Sandwich and South Georgia Islands.
“Look at those stupid savages,” the pilot said. “You’d think they’d eventually get a grip on the big picture and get with the program.”
“Tell me, Damon, just for my edification, what big picture would you have them understand for chrissake? The big picture our forefathers created? The planet they destroyed?”
“Get off your soapbox, Bill—”
“I appreciate their independence and their tenacity ... hell, I celebrate it. So what do you propose ... relocate them to the Kerguelen Islands or some other isolated place?”
“Wait another ten or twenty years, they’ll all be extinct anyway, mark my words.”
“Good for you, you’ve finally made an accurate statement. Of course it has nothing to do with seal populations declining or the unstable tundra and shrinking glaciers.”
Damon gave William a non-committal look and shook his head, exhaling as if to underscore his position.
“What I mean is,” he said, “they don’t have a chance and you know it. Even if the Federals all agreed to enact enculturation, what would they do? Become janitors in the transportation systems, monorail grease monkeys, domestics, sea grass and kelp processors ... tenders in the Green Zones?”
The jet-copter droned on, speeding to the refueling port at Queen Maud. The real problem was larger than the coastal tribes, the Kanits, Drocs, or even the Hesbins. The situation that currently demanded his attention, and the attention of the Bureau of Internal Management, was the growing numbers of inland tribes bringing their herds into the Federal agricultural areas. Despite security measures, the very fact that the Green Zones had expanded by fifty percent over the last three decades made it impossible to patrol every square kilometer. The technology had that enabled large-scale artificial environments and the atmospheric greenhouses, could not contain a nomadic and primitive people, not without strict intervention.
Below the jet-copter the endless snow and ice gleamed. A few kilometers outside of Green Zone D-2, William spotted a large group of Inlanders. “Take us down, Damon.”
The jet-copter’s thrusters slowed and it began its descent, landing on a broad snowfield about a kilometer outside the Green Zone. William climbed out of the Plexiglas cockpit, his boots crunching like distant gunfire in the frozen snow. Damon stayed behind in the warmth of the cockpit and radioed their position to headquarters. William walked toward the Inlanders and their herd, half-hating what he had to do.
It was a timeless scene, as if taken from a fresco in a museum honoring the olden days. There they were: the Antarctic deer and caribou, the Inlanders—symbols of the past, renegades who neither understood nor obeyed Federal laws and regulations—tromping through the never-ending whiteness toward the shimmering green of the agricultural zone. Inlanders were herdsmen, nomads, with thick fur coats and leggings, standing like statues, as reminders of a lost and distant past, their dark eyes intense, looking out from hoods drawn tightly around their faces.
Yet this was what the world had become, this imbalance of time and place, a juxtaposition of necessity and survival. There were distortions and misinformation, even underhanded deceptions, bit and pieces of wrongdoing. The modern world was determined to see only what it wanted to see—disinclined to look beyond manufactured illusions. The Inlanders were a declining tribe, and most the herdsmen here were old and ragged. The changes the world had wrought in the last hundred years had nothing to do with their ancestors, or anything their ancestors had ever done.
It was the world of civilized humans who had caused the changes, the viral plagues and catastrophic shifts; who embraced intractable actions and blind attitudes, the denials of a reality self-perpetrating, growing more ominous with every ream of evidence. But that was decades ago, and humanity had, by necessity, moved on ... or so William halfheartedly told himself.
He signaled to the herdsmen. They watched and waited as he approached. Walking closer, he recognized one of the older men by tattoos on his cheeks; they were the Inlander motif for their version of ying and yang. William could not help thinking how the world of his ancestors had indulged in too much yang, too much invasive, penetrative and exploitative yang. He spoke into the translator device.
“Do the fish swim in harmony with the seals today? Is the shark the master of the sea?” It was a customary greeting among coastal tribes, one recognized by the Inlander people.
The old man seemed surprised and amused by the mechanical voice of the translator, as if each time he heard it was the first. Hope flickered in his graying eyes, and he nodded.
“Yes, all is well and there is peace.” This too was an ancient saying, a response.
William had a job to do, distasteful though it was. “Old one,” he said, “you must take your herd from this place. You cannot cross into the green land.”
“Then where will we graze our animals?” the old man asked.
William grimaced, almost imperceptibly. “You may graze your animals on the tundra where the morning sun first appears.”
The translator device did not contain words such as north or south, for the Inlanders, a people of the bottom of the world, had no conception. Due north was directly beneath a man’s feet, south aimed to the starry void beneath. They spoke only in terms of inner and outer, seaward and inland, sunrise and sunset.
“But the tundra is a hungry land, a land where our herds will slowly starve.” The old man’s hand trembled slightly.
“The tundra will be better this year, this I promise,” said William, gesturing with his arm in a sweeping motion. Though well-intended, reality would likely negate his optimism; yet he could not bring himself to say otherwise.
“This land is green and rich. This land is good for our animals.”
“The land is made green by my people, and there is no room for your herd. I am sorry for this....”
“But there is much land, land without snow.”
“Not for your people, not here.”
The old man’s leathery face seemed perplexed; he shook his head and spoke to the others gathered behind him. William understood. This old fellow’s great-grandfather had no doubt told stories of the days before the transformations. In the beginning it was the erratic shifts in weather patterns, glacial melting and rising seas—soon thereafter the droughts and deadly plagues.
“We must graze our animals,” the old man said simply. “It has always been our way.”
“Go back to the tundra, go back to the inland world. I give my word, my people will send food for your animals.”
It was another half-empty pledge, and William would not try to explain in greater depth. What was there to explain? How could he clarify anything to these people? The so-called civilized nations had ruined Earth through population explosions, religious insanity, through greenhouse gases, political corruption and corporate greed—but such concepts meant nothing or held tangible meaning to the old man and his people.
The Green Zones and atmospheric greenhouses were the salvation of Antarctica, and a handful of tribal anachronisms, a soon-to-be extinct race of primitive humans could not be allowed to interfere. Or at least that was the Federal party line, although William had a tough time reconciling it within himself. He would leave now, return to the jet-copter and write his report. If the tribesmen moved inland, no one would brother them, but if they continued farther toward the Green Zone, the military would swiftly deal with the problem. That was that. William climbed into the cockpit and took off his heavy coat.
“Let’s get out of here, Damon. Another day at the office, mission accomplished.”
“They’ll be back in a day or two, then the relocation squads will take care of it.”
“Somebody will do something.” William let out a deep breath.
Damon started the thrusters. “It’s like this: I don’t let it get to me. They’re a bunch of Neanderthals, leftovers from another era. I’ve read the scientific evidence. Neanderthals didn’t die out, they got bred out. Inlanders have the N-type DNA markers in their genomes, and it’s why they never progressed past the Stone Age. It’s the same for all underdeveloped people, always has been.”
“That’s Ministry of Anthropology talk. Since when did you join the party, Damon? I didn’t realize you were so far gone.”
He shot a sideways look at William. “Go to hell, you liberal whiner.” He clenched his jaw and pushed the controls and the jet-copter lifted skyward. Below, the powdery snow whirled into the blue sky, churned by the whirling blades. Then everything was still and there was nothing but white, blue, and a broad patch of green retreating in the distance.
* * *
It had not been a good day and William was in no mood to go home, at least not yet. After the jet-copter landed at the refueling station in Queen Maud he took a shuttle to the high-speed monorail near downtown. It would be a three-and-a-half-hour trip back to Ukam, but that was fine; it would give him time to think things through, time to resolve questions that had lingered too long at the back of his mind.
The underground monorail had five passenger cars and William seated himself in the last one. Within sixty seconds the big electric motors whisked the train through the underground tunnel at three hundred kilometers an hour. The car was half-full and William studied people’s faces as he walked the length of the long aisle; everyone looked the same, tense, furled expressions: preoccupied, bedraggled wives and sullen teenagers, harried business people.
It was during moments such as this that William felt alone. The world had changed too much in the last fifty years, yet people had not changed. It seemed as if every person alive had brought a suitcase from the past filled with what they once were; and despite the radical transformations that changed the Earth, for better or worse, human nature remained the same.
The plasma screen on the back of the seat in front of William was playing a fantasy science program about the moon. From inside the huge bubble moon base, the stars above were bright, and outside animated lunar rovers zoomed along lunar roads, with helmeted human figures walking across the moonscape, framed by a backdrop of ragged lunar peaks thrusting into an unearthly black sky.
He considered the scene and decided the mountains were not much different from Antarctica's ranges. Barren, cold, lifeless, and except for snow and ice very similar in their sharpness and the unblunted edges of their peaks. It had been decades since the exodus to Antarctica, and many decades of preparation. The old world had not died overnight—of course it hadn’t. Such changes took more than mere decades.
Middle Earth was no longer habitable, except for a few bizarre insects and mutated plants and creatures one might not even recognize ... no, that broad band between the forgiving latitudes, the golden zone of previous life was changed forever, and William could not remember how it had once been, could not recall places like Africa, Asia, or even North America.
Space was vast. There were countless worlds out there somewhere, and not all of them barren like the moon, barren like Antarctica. Maybe someday Mars would be rejuvenated, made hospitable to human life. And there would be other suns, other blue rivers, green grasslands and forests. There was only one way to get to the stars, and William understood that. But then what?
He took a last look at the sweeping panorama on the plasma screen and switched it off. He felt a little better. One chance in a million, a billion? Well, it was better than nothing. The train slowed and came to a stop at the station in Ukam. He left the monorail and walked the short distance to the shuttle tunnel. He would be home in ten minutes.
* * *
William walked the gentle slope to his house on the bluff. He was conscious of being late—not enough to require an explanation—and aside from his tardiness, the feeling he had underneath it all was a sudden desire to talk, to communicate, to connect with his wife and stepson, to somehow relate what he’d felt earlier in the day.
As he stepped through the front double-insulated doors and into the living room, his wife, Edith shot him a cold look. “Where on earth have you been?” she demanded.
Geordie lay on the couch mutely watching plasma vision. He had not shaved his scraggly beard and his clothes were unkempt and wrinkled, as if he had slept in them during the day. He did not bother greeting his stepfather.
William felt his cheeks flush. His family life was a joke, a quiet lie, a betrayal written in cryptograms. His wife and stepson bought into it all, believed the propaganda and horseshit, bought in without so much as a whimper or angry complaint. They were blind like all the others, the same as Damon. William turned on his heels and walked to the back of the couch where Geordie lay. The young man did not notice.
“Well?” Edith demanded, her voice more shrill. “Why are you so late?”
William did not acknowledge her. Instead he walked purposely toward a set of bookshelves and grabbed a heavy porcelain vase, turned, took several steps toward the plasma-vision and hurled the vase into its meter and a half wide screen, making a loud thud and the crackling sound of shattering krylene plastic.
The screen went dead. Geordie leapt from the couch as if hit by a jolt of electricity. “What the fuck is the matter with you?” he screamed.
“Instead of sitting on your ass all day watching that insipid device, you should figure out how to do something positive for this sorry-ass world we live in.”
Geordie turned to his mother. Her face froze in a mask of startled disbelief, pale, as if someone had pulled a cork and all her color had drained out. “Why’d you marry this freak to begin with?” Geordie shouted.
She recovered herself and turned her icy stare on William. “For God’s sake, Bill Henry, what in the world has happened to you? We hardly know you anymore.”
“Then keep your mouths shut. Your son is a waste, an unambitious conformist little monster just like all the others who stood by and watched for the last hundred years.”
“Give me a break,” Geordie said, throwing up his hands. “The world went to hell because of people like you. Ambitious, money-grubbing corporate pigs who put wealth and class mentality above everything else.”
“I never grubbed for money and you know it.”
“You would have if there had of been something to grub for. No, you’re the big civil servant, getting your share by keeping your muzzle in the old public trough.”
“I do my job! I keep the Green Zones productive and safe.” William bellowed.
“You’re a pimp for the Ministry and the Federals, that’s what you are.”
William started for Geordie. The gangly young man backed away and disappeared down the hallway to his room. In William’s heart and mind his stepson had always been baggage, never a real son ... never even a friend.
* * *
He walked outside into the cold night, under the star-pocked moonless sky. The deep Antarctic night closed around him, sheltering him. The nighttime lights of Ukam were an intrusion, but he did not try to edit them out, not this time. In order to survive there had to be cities like Ukam, like Queen Maud, and all the others. Antarctica was a large continent, home to millions—one of the last livable places, but it was also a long, long way from Eden.
There where niches and crannies in the old world, a few microclimates and small enclaves where meager life might somehow survive. Other than that, there was not much, just millions and millions of square miles of desiccation, desert and sand and windblown dust forever circulating around an abused and worn-out planet. A tiny rock adrift in ether, millions of miles from its sun.
Perhaps he was mad—William had thought this more than once. On the other hand, a man had to be crazy to make it these days, had to keep a lot inside himself.
Life had become a purgatory of self-reclamation, a purgatory of simple survival. Yet surrender was not an option. No ... the future demanded that no one give up, that no one allow the false comforts of illusion, denials of an empty eternity and dreams of divine intercession—and all those promises never kept.
The countless lies revealed too late.