Skillet topped the rise and looked down across the dead sea bottom. He knew from prior trips that the three stranded cargo vessels were farther off than might be expected. The sun was still high, but in this latitude it would drop quickly: there might be enough time to make it across the drained land. And then and again, there might not…
Press on or not? Make camp here, in sight, or strike out across the flats? A decision made more difficult by the straggling group that he had guided across kilometres of blighted wilderness. Skillet knew that he would would be able to traverse the difficult terrain that had once been covered by deep water, but the score or so of people in this little band were a mix of rugged adventurers, who still seemed reasonably fresh despite a difficult day, and those who hadn’t yet made it to the top of the hill.
Facial contortions marked the progress of his thoughts as he worried at the problem: lips pursed, cheeks were sucked in and blown out, the long thin nose twitched. Coming to a decision, Skillet called his to apprentices to his side.
“Right, here’s the plan” he pitched his voice low so as not be overheard, but still managed to sound decisive. “We’re going to split into three groups. Beanpole: you’ll take the first group and set off as soon as we’ve redistributed the packs a bit. In your group, let Bench set the pace, everyone else will be able to keep up whether they think they can or not, but the sight of the ships will spur them on.”
Beanpole nodded, and cast a sidelong look at the middle-aged Bench where he sat on his pack and tried to stretch out a cramp in his leg. A tough beggar he was, but clearly in some discomfort. In every way that counted he was by no means the weak link on this journey, but he would definitely be the slowest in her group, although he’d push himself hard.
“Bucket: you’ll have the second group. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with them, although they might grumble a bit at the extra load they’re going to have to carry. Tell them how tough they are and how glad we are to have them along and all that sort of thing. You know the drill. And tell them about that time when we had to portage around those rapids and we spent two days going back and forth with all that equipment – but maybe save that one for if they start to flag.”
Bucket answered with his big tomb-stone grin.
Skillet looked over at the two people, young but unfit, who had just got to the top, the last in this disparate and rag-tag group. They found somewhere to slump down, too exhausted from the climb to even groan about how tired they were. “I’ll make sure the rest get there before we lose the light.”
Skillet pulled out a little pair of binoculars and checked the progress of Beanpole and Bucket. Bucket had the pros and the experienced amateurs, who had taken on the burden of carrying some extra weight to enable the others to make it to the ships tonight. Even so, they were making good time, although it looked like Beanpole and the fitter of the newbies would still make it first. Hopefully they’d get the kettle on. Skillet’s group, the walking wounded as he thought of them, still had a couple of kilometres to go. These people really had no business to be making this journey – unprepared, physically and mentally flabby, but then what choice did they have?
Some thought of it as a pilgrimage, something that they should do, a secular penance to atone for ignoring the environment. For others, it was simply a challenge, something to be done, to say that they had done it: badge-collecting. For the rest, it was part of the new way of life. Everything considered, humanity had done surprisingly well. World-wide, there had been fewer deaths than in the second world war, and the panic and looting had been surprisingly limited. There had been the usual fantasists talking about the Earth trying to rid itself of the plague of Humanity, but it was really just a case of wrong place, wrong time. The wrong place being the whole planet, and the wrong time being an infinitesimal sliver of geological time.
Some things are just too big to think about. It’s tricky to keep a whole planet in mind, without turning it into a marble, floating in space. It’s hard to remember that the bit we walk around in is just a load of rocky islands, floating on a world-spanning ocean of liquid fire. Why would you? Why would you want to? Geologists look at a boiled egg, and bringing down their spoon create their view of the globe all over again.
The world shrugged. The cracked crust of the Earth moved past itself, up and over, down and under, scraping side by side. The movement was unprecedented, not so much in magnitude, but in extent – more plates moved in one moment than had ever been seen before. The usual earthquakes had been joined by stranger occurrences. Here an entire section of seabed had risen up, there an island had sunk beneath the waves. The devastation had been widespread.
Skillet herded the last of the group towards the ship. The sun was beginning to set, and in the process set lowering cotton-candy clouds aflame. He tried to fix the pinks and oranges shading to reds and purples in his mind, together with the dark shapes of the boats. One of these days, perhaps he’d get his art supplies sorted out and put this scene on paper with his paints. Maybe,
Beanpole and Bucket were seeing about getting the volunteers up on to the deck above, with all their kit. Some on the boat would be leaving soon, going home, moving on, replaced by those who had just arrived. The stranded vessels, wedged and propped had become a strange little community. Equipment on board was used to process the polymetallic nodules that littered the ground here abouts. At one time these ship were part of a fleet that had been sent to harvest them from beneath the sea. Now, they could be taken for the picking. The volunteers also collected plastics that created a layer like some polluted manna, and processed these. A small farm was beginning to make the community self sufficient.
Skillet was the last to make his way up; as he reached the deck, Bucket passed him a cup of tea. They leaned against the rail. Beanpole joined them and together they looked back at this last leg of journey. Night shadowed the wilderness of the sea-bottom, and you’d almost think the ships were at sea.
© David Jesson, 2019
And you should also check out the amazing Stuart Nager’s story based on this photo-prompt, over at Tale Spinning.