Maybe 200 years in the future, a young woman endeavours to find her place in a world marked by two centuries of ecological collapse and mass migration. Things may have stabilised, but society has changed for good, striving to save all that can be saved.
There is a buzzing in her tummy as she thinks about those three wonderful people. She smiles to herself.
Tilda climbs up the side of the train cabin. With a bit of effort she makes it into the top one of three hammocks without flipping over. She sinks herself into the rough canvas and wraps her sleeping bag around her. It is a cold morning in March. Tilda is excited, full of expectations. In a few minutes the train would depart. From Amsterdam Central it would go West and South, stop at a few more Amsterdam stations, then disappear underneath the vast industrial and agricultural complex surrounding the mega city. The train would re-surface a day later in the Central-European desert. Crossing the man-made solitude, they would go straight South for the better half of tomorrow. Late in the evening, she would arrive in Jura. Tilda didn’t know much about her destination. What mattered was that a hostel apartment would be her home for the next six month. She would share the place with Joris, Salome and Ron. They’d work hard, be exhausted, but they would be together. There is a buzzing in her tummy as she thinks about those three wonderful people. She smiles to herself.
With a jerk, train begins to move. Tilda’s hammock swings towards the centre of the cabin and back, gently bumping her hip against the cushioning of the cabin wall. She takes a look out of the window where the giant steel construction of the station appears to accelerate around her. From her hammock she can see the neighbouring platform. The tracks over there are empty and she can see right through to the platforms underneath. Tilda counts three, four layers of brightly lit platforms till her view is blocked by another train.
A few seconds later they have left the station. The train moves across the rooftops of Amsterdam. Few people are already outside. Between the hedges and trees she can spot someone exercising here, someone tending a garden bed there. The train gains speed as it descends into a canyon of apartment buildings. Lit windows flash by, then it is dark outside. Tilda taps her wristpad. The screen flares up, just a bit too bright for this time of the day. Tilda squints at the time. Six-thirty. She quickly types a message into a group chat. “I’m on my way, arriving tomorrow evening.” She adds a little hedgehog to the message and switches off the display. With closed eyes she enjoys the humming noises of the train and dreams of hedgehogs.
When they got out into the open, she saw a city decorated with jagged crowns of salty icicles.
Suddenly they are in the open again. As Tilda looks out of the cabin window, she sees a grey morning sky hanging over a windy grey North Sea. Huge waves splash against the sea walls. She spots a few flocks of birds jumping from rock to rock, looking for food in the falling tide. Further out on the horizon, she can barely make out the storm surge barriers. The position lights of a few wind turbines are flashing through the grey. Last year, on a school trip they had been out there. Vividly she remembers the noise of the wind, the waves grinding against these bulwarks of steel an concrete, the enormous dimensions of the constructions. Shouting at the group of students, their guide explained that this was a calm day. During a storm, no one was allowed out here. The infrastructure operated autonomously, protecting the lives of close to four hundred million people in Amsterdam, basically half of Europe. The giant thing had worked without a single failure in close to a hundred years. In her own lifetime she remembered one incident in a cold winter, were parts of the city were instructed to seek shelter. For two days they stayed in their living compartments, listening to the storm, the occasional splashing of water and the noises of the buildings move – Amsterdam was built on stilts. When they got out into the open, she saw a city decorated with jagged crowns of salty icicles. She is still in thoughts about the sea when the window gets dark again. The train is back between the buildings, maybe underground, probably approaching another station. Tilda makes herself comfortable in the hammock and closes her eyes. She remembers kissing Salome on that school trip, out there on the storm surge barriers, their bodies tightly pressed against each other, hiding from the wind in a quiet corner.
It is already well past midday when Tilda wakes up. She is hungry. Looking around, Tilda notices that she is no longer alone in the train compartment. Two more people have made themselves comfortable in the hammocks beneath hers. There is bush of curly black hair sticking out from a sleeping bag below, and she hears someone fumbling with a zipper in the lowest hammock. She climbs down the side of the cabin. A woman with white hair greets her with a smile; the curly bush doesn’t seem to move. Tilda makes her way out of the compartment to the bathrooms, and then goes on a search for the restaurant car. There are two. She picks the one towards the front of the train, a few carriages away. She stumbles through another two sleepers and along the aisle of a sitting car with people reading or quietly chatting. The restaurant is almost empty. A group of people in business suites have tea together, and the two people behind the bar look rather bored. Tilda asks for a houmous sandwich and a cup of tea. “Would you want salad on it? The rocket is really spicy.” Tilda nods, briefly reading through the menu. They have walnut cake! Bring it on! She wolfs down the warm sandwich, finished it even before her tea and the cake arrived. The rocket is indeed spicy, clearing her nostrils and driving tears into her eyes. She feels awake and happy, smiling at the people at the bar, one of them signalling that her dessert is ready.
Back in her hammock, Tilda switches on her wristpad. There are a few messages from friends. Ron and Salome wrote that they would arrive three days after Tilda. Are they travelling together? A teacher reminded them to write a logbook and that they were happy that the students would go on so many different ‘adventures’. Another teacher noted that, every now and then, they should write an entry in Spanish or Russian, or record a video in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue. The rule made little sense as many students came from rather diverse language backgrounds anyway. Tilda couldn’t be bothered for now. She searches for pictures and news about Jura, which she expected to be a small construction and research camp, mostly a train station, located at some sub-alpine mountain range at the southern edge of the desert. There are supposed to be artificial lakes around, collecting rainfalls from the hills. What she finds looks stunning: sunny skies over the hills, scantly clad in green. Though, the climate is rather rough, below freezing at night and scorching during the day. Is this in the desert or in the hills? She would see.
Yet, she knew what hunger and thirst felt like, she knew how fragile peace and social cohesion were in a densely populated mega city.
Tilda had signed up for an internship programme with a group of agroforestry researchers, who were working to stop the expansion of the desert. There were several of these programmes ongoing, all focused on feeding people and managing natural wealth, and substantial quantities of the city’s resources flow into containing and re-greening the desert. Tilda didn’t know much about these programmes, but she understood that they were essential for their survival. After more than a century of environmental disasters, she was born into a period of relative calm and stability. Yet, she knew what hunger and thirst felt like, she knew how fragile peace and social cohesion were in a densely populated mega city. And she was eager to learn what life in smaller communities would be like. Most of all, she wanted a bit of privacy with her friends, spend time with them, and see if and how their relationships would work out. She wanted the four of them to disappear from the tense and dense city life, where everything was seen by someone, where there was little chance to be alone. She dreamt of having sex outside. In a forest or by a lake. That’s what was on her mind when she and her friends sent their applications for internships in Jura, and when she spent nights over nights searching for a hostel apartment for the four of them.
“Jura,” she mumbles. A noise from below gets Tilda out of her musings. “Are you also going to Jura? Do you live there?” the woman with the white hair from the bottom hammock asks. “No, it’s my first time. I’m doing an internship for a few months. You?” – “I’m there for ten years already, since the research outpost was built. I’m An.” – “I’m Tilda. Nice to meet you.” Tilda turns around to wave down to An, when the curly bush between them catches her attention. A hand appears from the sleeping bag and moves the curls away, revealing the sleepy face of a bearded young man. “Good morning Gerry! Gerald works with me, when he is awake,” An explains.
It was already evening when the train left the city complex and moved into the open desert. There wasn’t much daylight left, and all they could see was the bare ground around the tracks. Dry and dead. Once there were ruins of settlements here, but over the centuries, all usable building materials, even the remaining topsoil, had been absorbed by the city. Over several generations, environmental conditions had gotten more and more hostile. Not just here but all over the world. When yearly heat waves scorched Europe and heavy rainfalls became unpredictable, people moved. The North Sea formed a natural barrier to them, and being neither wanted on the other side, nor able to cross it, people settled. They settled all along the coast, from Bilbao to Bremen, wherever conditions where somewhat hospitable. After the heat from the South came the storms and floods from the North, and it was those storm surge barriers, the improved Delta Works of what used to be The Netherlands, that seemed to provide the best protection. With more ingenious engineering and a tremendous effort in materials and labour, one country – now a mega city – managed to absorb people on the move, at the scale of more than twenty times the local population. Within a few decades, buildings extended tens of stories into the ground and into the sky. Being a mining complex and factory at the bottom, indoor farms and office buildings in the middle, and living quarters and recreation space, gardens and wind and solar farms on the top, the city provided for the needs of everyone. At least that was the ideal, the concept of the city as seen and promoted by the rich and powerful. In reality, people lived everywhere. Many of those who arrived late were forced to fight for shelter and food, for political participation. The situation in Amsterdam escalated in the second half of the 21st century, when the vast number of newcomers demanded equitable access to resources, and the right to participate in decision making and to self-organise. What emerged was a system of direct deliberation that forces groups with opposing ideas to communicate, to find solutions that everyone can live with, that leaves behind no losers. And despite all the differences, despite prevailing stereotypes, despite fierce debates over the use of scarce resources, the city was now governed through a political system that gave everyone the dignity of being heard and involved, building on collective wisdom and avoiding to perils of segregation and armed conflict. For almost a century already, and through a number of crises, this inclusive approach to governance created a strong enough feeling of belonging for the city to prevail and to come out stronger.
“Jura and the other outposts were born in one of these crises,” An says. Gerry intervenes: “My family was against it. I was ten or eleven years old and we had just lost everything in a storm, people were hungry, and ‘they’ decide to build a thousands kilometres of tracks into the desert.” – “You never told me. How did you end up in Jura then?” – “One evening dad came home, talking about nothing but the hospital to be built in Jura. My mum joint one of the engineering teams. Somehow they got convinced in all those debates, somehow they felt that contributing to this project could be meaningful. We spent three years with the construction crews, in tents in the desert and then, finally, the tracks arrived at Jura. Our first home was in the mountain that is now the train station.” Tilda listens intrigued. “The train station is in a mountain?” – “Yes, the town is meant to fit as naturally as possible into the mountain range. Most buildings have been carved into the bedrock. When you get out, you are immediately in what will soon be a sub-alpine forest. But the lizards get in through every opening,” An answers, just when their conversation is interrupted. With a piercing squeak the train rapidly brakes, their hammocks swing around, pressing the three of them against the cabin wall. They come to a hard stop.
“Gonna be half a day late. We’re stuck in the desert 🐊”
Through the loudspeakers, someone announces that “there is dangerous terrain ahead of us, we’ll update you shortly. We need to switch off the lights of and turn the heating down to conserve energy.” – “This will be cold soon,” Gerry moves out of his sleeping bag to put on some extra clothes. “Put on everything you have,” he exclaims. Tilda and An follow his advice without a comment, and then slip back into their sleeping bags. The carriage is insulated, but still, temperature inside would drop sharply over night. At least they are protected from the wind. Temperatures outside would probably fall to -30°C or -40°C. Muffled sounds from the loudspeaker precede another announcement: “It looks like a sinkhole has damaged the tracks. It’s too dangerous to inspect the damage or continue the journey at night. We have requested support from the city. In the meantime, stay warm. We will be handing out blankets and tea.” An sighs. Tilda types into her group chat: “Gonna be half a day late. We’re stuck in the desert,” followed by a little crocodile. She had never seen a lizard, but they might replace the hedgehogs in her mind.
Tilda and An would spend half the night chatting, with Gerry throwing in a comment once in a while, while tapping away on his wristpad. The folks from the restaurant cars passed by with tea. And it got cold. Not unbearably cold but cold enough so they could see their breath against the emergency lights when speaking. “I’ve been talking with my parents. They are fairly certain that there is little chance for sinkholes in this area. They tested the ground over and over before the construction teams laid the tracks. Mum is worried.” – “I’d be surprised if they didn’t do geological surveys. But there’s nothing to do right now. Let’s try and sleep.” They wished each other a good night and kept silent. Tilda typed a few final messages into her wristpad. Salome was asking why she replaced her hedgehogs with a crocodile. She had to smile, but didn’t answer for now. How do lizards have sex, she wondered.
Tilda was tightly hugging Joris. They had zipped open their sleeping bags to use them as blankets, wondering if it would be warm enough to be naked. She felt a warm hand on her hips, gently scratching along her buttocks and up her back. She moaned, at the same time wondering how much noise they could make and whether students in the other tents could hear them. Just then they heard noises outside. Muffled grunting, someone sneaking around the tent? Maybe another student? As quickly and quietly as possible in a tiny tent, they put on their underwear an shirts. The sounds ceased, then starting again as the two young adults stopped moving. Heavy breathing, something touching the tent walls. Then there was an unfamiliar smell. Coffee? How would that fit into her dream?
As Tilda slowly wakes up, she remembers where she is. On a stranded train in the desert. An stands in front of her, balancing three big cups of coffee on a tray, smiling at the two people in their hammocks and sleeping bags. “The sun is coming up. Wanna look outside before it’s getting too hot?” – “An, how do those lizards have sex?” An smirked. “Oh, I can show you. Their season starts maybe in a month.” While sipping their coffee, Tilda tells the least intimate bits of her tent story. She was on a school trip to The Biosphere, an underground nature reserve and farming experiment to simulate outside conditions from before the breakdown, preserving a fraction of the fauna and flora from back then. It was a ‘camping trip’, or the closest thing possible in the city. She vividly explains how, later that night, she and Joris were standing outside under the artificial moonlight, shivering in their underwear, and watched two hedgehogs making love right in front of their tent.
Outside it was bright already, with temperatures rapidly approaching 0°C. Almost no wind. A handful of people were walking around the train to inspect the situation. The gravel underneath the tracks at their own carriage was partly gone, with the tracks forming a tiny bridge over a chasm in the ballast. They were lucky the train didn’t derail. In front of the train, another section of the ballast was gone. Signalling wires dangled loose from underneath the tracks, partly ripped apart. Some passengers had been up earlier to walk a few kilometres back in the direction of the city, reporting similar damage to the tracks. Heavy rainfalls a few days ago had flushed away sand and gravel, and, while the water had already disappeared from the surface, the eroded ground had become a hazard for everyone. It was clear that heavy engineering vehicles from the city wouldn’t be able to get close immediately. Jura had sent out an engineering team, too, but they were still half a day away and it was uncertain how close they could get. They were on their own for now.
Tilda took of her jacket, realising that it must be well above 10°C. For a moment she enjoyed the warm sunshine on her skin. To her feet was something like a rock pool. The water had evaporated and there was some crusty brown-yellow sediment left. Curiously she dipped in a finger, scratched of a bit of the crust, smelled and licked it. Salt. Then she turned around to Gerry. “How warm does it get?” He looked about as worried as yesterday night. “Unpredictable. Maybe thirty degrees, maybe fifty.” “And better be careful with the the ground. It could be toxic.” At the front part of the train, a group of people engaged in a discussion about whether or not to send out a scouting team in the direction of Jura. They decided to follow the tracks for no longer than thirty minutes and then return to avoid the midday heat.
The mud carries their history: the trash of centuries of an exploitative fossil-fuel economy, which would now require harrowing efforts to clean up.
Desperate to do something, Tilda decides to join that scouting group. Anything would be better than sitting around. The group of eight young people moves swiftly across to wasteland. Barren hills, rocks, cracked mud, salt crusts, and pretty much no vegetation as far as they can see. The only bits of plant life are colourful lichens that grow on those rocks tall enough to not be covert in mud: delicate yet hardy leaves in yellow, orange, turquoise, and sometimes green. The group crosses something that could have been an old river bed. Without vegetation, the ground would erode further with every shower and every gust of wind. Tilda feels like they are exploring Mars. Is there any amount of agroforestry to bring this place back to life? A two-hundred-years-old book trilogy about humanity settling on Mars and terra-forming the red planet comes to her mind. There the goal was to thicken the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and evaporated water. On Earth, they had to do the opposite and get greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Making this desert and the equatorial regions green again would be the only lasting way to achieve this, she had learnt. Tilda takes a few pictures of the desolate landscape with her wristpad’s camera. She also takes pictures of the damage done to the tracks. Besides the river bed, about fifty metres of tracks are gone entirely, buried under a thick layer of cracked mud. She kicks against a rock. A few big lumps of dry mud fall off, revealing something that looks like disintegrating plastic sheets. The mud carries their history: the trash of centuries of an exploitative fossil-fuel economy, which would now require harrowing efforts to clean up. Indeed, this is not the pristine and lifeless wilderness of Mars. This is Central Europe.
After maybe two kilometres the group decides to turn around. It was clear that the flood had followed the old river bed and then spread out. It was also clear that they wouldn’t continue their journey with that train since repairing the tracks would probably take weeks.
Decisions had to be taken when they got back to the train. With outside temperatures approaching 30°C, a larger group of passenger convened in the bit of shade provided by the train carriages. Train staff prepared to broadcast the discussion over the train’s communication network and most passengers would follow from their compartments. Tilda sent around pictures from their expedition to describe the terrain and the extent of the damage. The conductors conveyed messages from the engineering teams: They got stuck some twenty kilometres North and South and started repairing the tracks. There were few off-road vehicles available to support the stranded passengers. Their situation, however, could become dire within hours. In the harsh desert climate, temperatures would continue to rise until the late afternoon. The train would have to be air-conditioned, first cooled and then heated at night. With the damaged tracks and supply lines cut, they would be out of power in a day. Another complication hid in the last two carriages. There, a large shipment, about two hundred metric tons, of seeds, tree saplings and animals for Jura was held in refrigerated storage. With Amsterdam being continuously pressed for resources to provide for the basic needs of the population, people quite literally had to to scrimp and save to produce these over the last years. Even the compost those little trees grew on was worth years of labour. A murmur went through the rows of passengers over this, many of them unsure how to prioritise between a fast evacuation of passengers and the protection of the very special cargo. Then An appeared from the back rows of the assembly. With a calm voice she introduced herself as the lead scientist responsible for the reforestation project and laid out her conclusions: They had energy for about eighteen hours, vehicles from the engineering teams could probably transport all five hundred passengers until tomorrow noon, there was no immediate capacity for luggage and cargo. She had further investigated with the city of Zurich whether there was capacity to airlift people in case of emergency but didn’t receive an answer yet. Overall, the outlook wasn’t great. People made all kinds of suggestions to save some of the freight – some would try and walk to the engineering teams to free cargo space in vehicles, others suggested to move closer together so that only few carriages had to be air conditioned. Small actions that could buy them time, but without options to transport a substantial fraction of these two hundred tons of live materials, little could be done. Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to finding out how many people would move on to Jura, and how many would return to Amsterdam.
“What can we get you in return?” – “Nothing. Popular opinion is that we all do what we can to make this place habitable again.”
An had made their train compartment her office and made call after call to see if there were any alternative means of energy supply or transportation available. Her hopes were still with Zurich, a much smaller community than Amsterdam. Being hidden in the mountains and inaccessible by ground transportation for most of the year, people there had focused on self-sufficiency – and on airships. She knew a couple of scientists from there, some of whom had be part of many discussions to plan ‘resuscitation’ and agroforestry projects around the Alps. She knew them as brilliant scientists and fierce negotiators who would defend international agreements and put hefty emission targets on any infrastructure project. This train line would have never been built without Amsterdam’s commitment to switch off their last incinerator plants and to recycle plastics mined from the desert. Finally she got a call. “Two hundred tons of live materials and five hundred passengers. Is that all?” – “Yes, that’s all. We have equipment to get the passengers out, if conditions don’t get worse. The train and all other materials can be salvaged when the tracks are prepared.” – “Will Jura be able to operate without supplies from Amsterdam for that time?” – “Probably, I don’t have a view on that yet.” – “We have two airships that could carry a hundred tons each. It’s about three hundred kilometres to your position; if the whether doesn’t get too bad, we could get you out in the morning.” – “That would be wonderful. What can we get you in return?” – “Nothing. Popular opinion is that we all do what we can to make this place habitable again.” An was surprised, and not. It was the logical thing to do. “We’ll probably need to refuel in Jura, maybe you could arrange for that.”
From now on things had to move quickly. An, Gerry, Tilda, and a few others began working on the freight cars. The containers had to be unscrewed and prepared for airlifting. Just when the heat became unbearable, they moved back inside, continuing the work after nightfall. Everyone else had packed some personal belongings. Large luggage had to stay for now. In the evening, the engineering crews began to evacuate people in groups of fifteen or twenty per trip. When temperatures fell to -20°C again, the evacuation stopped with half the passengers being at the engineering camps already. The remaining people gathered in the restaurant cars, talking and giving each other comfort. Some wouldn’t see their lovers and families in a while, others would miss a wedding or a funeral. Overall the mood was positive, people appreciated that no one got injured and the material damage was limited.
There was a group of fifteen people around An, who were to prepare the air lift and who would probably leave the train last. Tonight they slept early, knowing that at dawn they had hard work to do.
The call came in the middle of the night with An’s wristpad flaring up. “Hey Adil, are you arriving already?” – “No, listen, can you make it another day? We are anchored at Mont Tendre, not far away from you. But the wind is too strong, we need to wait.” – “No clue. Give me a minute to sort this out.” They rang up the train staff and explained the situation, checked energy supplies, contacted the engineering teams. It would get chilly, but it was doable. With an announcement, they switched of the air conditioning everywhere but for the cargo cars. One of the engineering vehicles would bring an extra power supply. What were the odds for the dirigibles to travel in the afternoon? What if they had to wait another day or two? Mobile batteries were no match to a train’s power consumption, and while the train was well insulated, it wasn’t designed for standing around in a desert with more than 60°C difference between the highest and lowest temperatures on a singe day.
Well before noon, all passengers were evacuated. An engineering vehicle stood ready for the last fifteen and a mobile power supply was buzzing quietly in the shade under a train car. They convened in one of the refrigerated cars, around the container hold. The place was rather cosy, not meant to host passengers. Every now and then, someone had to get out into the next passenger car to use the bathrooms. They would come back red-faced from the heat. In the late afternoon they finally got the call. The dirigibles were free and on their way. It took several hours until the two big blimps appeared in the sky. Slowly and without a sound they moved towards the train. The first airship deployed anchor lines and descended over a freight car. Opening the roof of the car, the train crew attached cables to the first container to haul it up into the ship’s cargo hold. Then the second. Loading the containers took longer than expected, and it was getting cold. The second dirigibles had gotten into position and everyone used the break to have a coffee and to put on whatever clothes they could find. They worked without break, ignoring the pain in their toes and fingers. Late at night they finally saw the fourth container disappearing into the airship’s cargo hold. “We got it! Get inside, warm up,” they heard Adil’s voice over their wristpads. Inside the engineering vehicle, they switched the heating on. They were happy. Their faces rosy and hurting, they smiled and drank coffee. In the morning they would drive over to the engineering camp and then be off to Jura.
The pain was excruciating.
Tilda sits in the morning sun on a hillside, her hands and feet in bandages. That night on the engineering vehicle… after the happiness came the pain. An and Gerry were experienced with frostbite, they prepared warm water for everyone’s feet and hands. The pain was excruciating. Now, weeks later, the last fifteen are all still wearing protective dressing, their fingers and toes swollen. An had lost a toe.
Three wall lizards, Podarcis muralis, emerge from a gap in the an old brick wall a few metres away from her. Spreading their bodies to capture as much of the sun’s warmth as possible, the lizards would sit there for hours before heading off to do their lizard things. Tilda could relate. Five more minutes. She blinks into the sun. That old book about settling on Mars came to her mind again. Humanity would use all kinds of automated and self-replicating machinery to make things happen. From space lifts to solar mirrors. But still, the fictional red planet was shaken by power struggles, desires to possess and to dominate. On the real Earth, in 2221, they don’t have the technology. They barely have any budget for raw materials, carbon emissions, and other natural resources left. But they have formed something that gets close to an equitable society where people care for each other and for future generations. In a few hours she would be with her lovers, and maybe they would see lizards fuck.
For those of you asking, the reference to a trilogy about humans settling on Mars is of course pointing towards one of my favourite works of SciFi literature ever, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars.
I wrote this story for a fiction contest and it didn’t win. Never mind. Be sure to check out the awesome winning stories at Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors.
Last modified: 2021-09-20 14:02:02 +0200