This piece is the first part of a story. The latter piece(s) of the story will be published before Parhelion releases. Don’t forget to check out the two other pieces of fiction being published today, here and here!
Yulia can’t help but hold her breath.
Periodically, the decaying, forested landscape breaks into concentric circles of blackened roadways descending to rust-stained artificial lakes: the abandoned nickel mines of the battery boom. They pass crater after crater, great red eyes watching the hopper from below. Leaning over to the window to look down, the eyes draw her in, but she has to pull away. She holds her breath so they won’t see her.
Eventually, the mining zone fades as they enter the Yenisei floodplain, where rotting pines outline the banks where the river once flowed. It’s beautiful. She lets out a great exhalation and breathes in the world. They follow the ancient river north for a while, bathing in bright blue light, then Niki banks the hopper and heads northwest across the taiga and toward the Kara Sea.
They fly in silence, both taking long sips of Diesel as the hopper tracks the gentle curves of the Yenisei. The air is noticeably cleaner now, bright blue sky and horizon stretching far ahead. As the sun starts climbing higher in the sky, she can see details in the forest below. Thin trees with bare branches sticking up between the litter, dead branches and trunks covered in mud and snow. The blue band of the horizon grows and she realizes they are approaching the Ob.
“How’s it feel, doctor? We’re far from the comforts of city life.”
Yulia nods—when she was a child, the taiga felt timeless, but then again, she had never seen the impact of the mining pits on the forest. If this is any indication of what could become of Yamal, well…
“I guess I’m waking up.”
“Ha! Yes, that’s Niki’s homemade Diesel for you!”
He turns away from the window and looks straight at her. “You okay, though? I thought we lost you back there in pittsville. Not many people get to see the mines from above. I should have warned you. Listen, it’s a pretty smooth ride from here to the banks of the Ob, can you check on the cargo temp? I’ve got to get our job docs loaded for casting when we hit the checkpoint.”
“Yeah, I’m back. I’ll do it. Sure.”
The checkpoint. It’s just a quick secbot ID check, not a deep scan. Esâ only had to make minor changes to Yulia’s ID file; her record was pretty clean anyway. Should be fine.
Still, she pats her inner pocket, her cargo, a special delivery from Esâ with love. But Yulia had only promised Esâ that she’d bring it to the ship, not that she would use it. She was clear about that with xir. She’d only use it if the ObSHL ship was really as bad as xi said. And it was hard to imagine it could be that bad. After all, this is the ship that brings the soil that grows the vegetables in every city under the midnight sun. Pat, pat again on her pocket.
The hopper harness locks snap free and she crawls into the small cargo hold behind their seats. Four isobaric tanks lay flat and secured on a Peltier bed, hoses snaking around them and into the hopper’s pneumatic system. She plugs the handheld reader into each tank’s thermocouple port. Stable, stable, stable… warm. Damn it. Warm tanks means slow death for the superbiophage they are transporting. Niki thinks this could be a big job; they don’t want to have to ration.
“Niki, looks like Tank 4 is running a little warm. Can you increase the power to the coolers?”
“Sorry no, can’t do it. We’re going to need reserves, lots of chop once we get to the ship, and one warm tank is not the end of the world. Hey, look, you made this stuff, it’s ten times stronger than anything I’ve ever worked with. We’ll be fine. Worst case is Weyland has to pay us to come back and do a touch up job. Keeping the ship running and out of dry dock is their priority.”
She crawls back to the cockpit and sits down just in time to see the taiga abruptly end as they cross into the Gulf of Ob—it feels like an ocean at this elevation. Sunspots begin to blot her vision then everything goes white. Niki is already tapping in a control sequence, and the electrochromics tint the hopper’s windshield, allowing her to see whitecaps and ice floats churn below them in the brilliant sea. Slowly, the outline of the Yamal Peninsula appears in the distance, stretching south to north and lost into the sun’s horizon.
Directly ahead of them she can see a small black rectangle, a sharp contrast to its surroundings, like a redaction of the seacliff. It’s growing larger by the second.
“There she is! Prepare yourself.”
The black shape grows into the outline of a massive ship, consuming their perspective. Yulia has seen the mega agroplexes in the middle of Velosibirsk plenty of times. Farming towers lost in the smog clouds, taking over city blocks; they just seem to blend in now. But the contrast of this blackened megaship, the Ob-ULPC1, against the pristine Gulf of Ob, is jarring.
Now the ship has eclipsed the cobalt horizon and the west shore of the Yamal. Niki turns down the electrochromics and small stars appear, some bright and still, some moving rapidly around in a luminous cloud.
“What are those, Niki?”
“Those are ship lights and the ship’s workers: camdrones and navalbots. From what I’ve heard, the crew has been entirely replaced by clones.” Two of the lights grow brighter, moving towards them out of the cloud. “Oh, and of course secbots. Here comes the checkpoint.”
Niki quickly stops their hopper and casts his security pass and work permit. The bots fly around them rapidly, shining their harmonic spotters and raster IR scanners across their hopper and cargo. They then pause for a moment. Yulia quickly looks at Niki, but before she can say anything the secbots fly off, buzzing pressure trails across the water.
As they approach the shadow of the massive ship a swarm of navalbots fly past them like a flock of skuas. The bots are soon followed by a fleet of tugboats pulling steel cables emerging from the side of the ship. Niki turns and ascends with the hopper, traversing the sheer wall of the starboard side. Towards the top, Yulia sees ports and pulleys spaced at equal intervals, spooling out the cables and pneumatic hoses hung from above by a series of gantries. Looking back, she sees that the tugboats have fanned out in an arc pulling the cables away from the ship. Large safety-yellow neoprene bags slide down the line, fanning out above the sea. Then Yulia hears a low frequency thump which grows louder and faster.
“Hear that? The turbine’s kicked on and they’re filling the ballasts, those yellow bags. That means the dig is starting. Let’s get up top to watch.”’ The yellow bags begin to inflate as proximity alarms blare; cambots moving rapidly between the ballasts and tugboats monitoring progress. With the pull of the tugboats the ship is now noticeably heeling; water flooding off the starboard side. The sounds of the drones, ship, and ocean all combine to a crushing flood of white noise.
Rising over the top of the ship, Yulia sees a forest of industrial equipment. The edge of the deck is encircled with gantries guiding the pneumatic lines. They are interspersed by black holes of exhaust pipes and heat exchangers in gray boxes; everything seems to be wound together by chemical piping. The center of the ship is dominated by a series of open bays with large shutter doors; they’re covered with a cross hatched grate.
“This is where the raw earth is deposited—the claws drop it onto the grate to sieve out bulk rocks, organic matter or large trash, then the bay doors open and earth drops into the ship hull.” Between the bays are enormous industrial Kalmar collectors: six-axis robots, made of telescoping buckyweave arms. They are mounted on what looks like repurposed gun turrets and held vertically in place by several guy-lines; despite being folded several times Niki has to ascend higher above the ship to avoid them and the surrounding cambots. “Those are the arms. Here come the claws!”
Suddenly a pressure vent is opened, sirens blare and large plumes of vapor spray out of the vents on the deck. Niki is almost jumping out of his seat. “This is exciting! We’re going to see the anchoring and first pull.”
Shiny thin shapes begin to emerge from the mist. At first Yulia mistakes them for cambots, but they’re too long and clean. The claws. Shaped like an upside-down picket fence, the claws are polished and sharp, brilliant in the bright blue sky above the mist. They continue to rise up, the buckyweave arms unfolding and telescoping like an insect, bots guiding and cables spooling out of the gantries. The sea cliff ahead of them is surrounded by a bay of small ships, barges and other heavy industry equipment, all waiting for the extraction process to begin.
The claws extend and begin to rotate, gear turbines spin up, light flashing off them like a strobe. Low-torque motors move the arms like a military line extending above the permafrost seacliff and as the mist clears Yulia can see they cast long shadows over the barren earth like a menacing Baba Yaga. “Each blade of the claw is barbed and can be pneumatically spun to mulch the biomass, enabling the extraction.” Once in position, a second siren turns on with flood lights pointed in a line across the permafrost sea cliff.
Steam is now bellowing out of the ship’s maw below the base of the claws, “They’re pressurizing the pneumatic springs now, then the cables will release and fire the claws into the earth. With all that pressure and a 20 meter fall, the claws can hit the earth with about 10 tons of force—enough to break 10 meters of cliff at a time.” Yulia feels tension building in her chest. It’s hard to take a full breath and her fingers curl up into her gloved palms.
There is a crack and flash like lightning. The claws rocket into the permafrost; snow and earth exploding upward. Skuas screech and circle their broken nests. When the air clears, she can see that the bladed fingers are entirely embedded into the earth. She can’t help but to check that her own fingers are still attached. Niki has been speaking this entire time.
“That always makes my heart lurch. Hard to stomach, but you have to because now it’s dinner time. The drills on the fingers will start breaking up the permafrost, and the pneumatics will start to pull the earth into the barges and then up into the maw for processing. Time to extract the earth.”
The crack grows in the perforated earth where the claws are embedded, while on the opposite side of the ship the tugboats are pulling at full force. The claws are opening the wound, tearing the cliff from the land. The crack widens, exposing the muddy innards of the centuries-old permafrost. Methane vaporizes where the hot claws pierce the permafrost. A terrible deep sound rumbles towards them as the earth splits open.
So this is what feeding the masses looks like. Pure violence: ripping out and extracting the earth’s flesh.
The divided seacliff is still for a moment, and then crashes into the sea, waves rocking the ships. Barges catch parts of the cliff, but lots of earth lands in the sea, lost, dissolving away. Some reindeer are swimming between the boats, frantically searching for shore. Some have been captured with the rubble— simply biomass, now. Yulia realizes her heart is racing.
“Don’t you think this process is excessive? Violently ripping apart the landscape, extracting every resource, leaving the earth wounded and scarred?”
Niki nods, but turns away and takes the controls, his eyes locked on the ship’s landing pad as he starts their descent. But he speaks again through clenched teeth “This is how we feed the world’s people, now. So many mouths. Something has to be sacrificed…”
There has to be a better way to feed the world’s people. Yulia pats her pocket again; Esâ’s datastick is still there. She runs her fingers across the sharp edges. Its payload is a virus that can stop this carnage, pull the ship down just like the ship’s own claws have been doing to the land. She grips it like a knife.
Midnight Sun will be released on July 22, 2022, as physical cards via NISEI’s print partners and pay-what-you want files for downloading and printing at home!