Thursday, October 5, 2017

10/5/17

GROWING GILLS
By Andrew Darlington


‘Whatever they’re doing, I suggest they do it faster.’

‘New energy-pods. Won’t take long.’ His fingers drum on the idle copter controls.

‘Damn time for a power-out. We’re already an hour late for this fool mission...’

--- 0 ---

The rain of millennia falls. As it fell the night before. The month before. For as long as memory can hold. It falls steadily, saturates hours, steeps days into weeks. There’s nothing but rain. The warren. The man, Crane. He passes a wrinkled hand over a wrinkled forehead, through what remains of hair. Surely, his fingers are webbed? It’s too damp to see. Rain has soaked the bunker for decades, sliming it with mildew, walls solid with green-black moss, fungus, weeds. A stink of badness and decay. Now there’s nowhere to escape to.

Growing gills, someone once said. We’re devolving into amphibian forms. He moves forward to grasp the first handrail rung that ascends to outside. Atrophied muscles register strain, same as every time he makes the journey. But failure’s not an option. This is emergency lift-off time. He pulls himself up the first level. Gangling legs hanging to the mud that smears every part of the stairwell. His arms are permanently diseased into patterns by the continual close proximity to water. He hauls his way up a further flight to where security-lock hatches seal him from the exterior. The continual beat of the rain makes concentration impossible. So pervasive it’s like a long silence. Listen, isn’t that silence?

There are lost figures in time. Drowned in the torrent. He tries to concentrate. Weeks already. The corroded barriers hadn’t held, exploding in pent-up tsunami, floodtide ripping through concrete, through mud, through bodies. Inundating lower levels, the com-suite submerged in black tide. And only he survives. Growing gills. Devolving. Weeks? Has it really been that long? Does it matter? Recollection diminishes. The edges of thought erodes. Fouling up mental processes, slowing the ability to think. He abandons such futile attempts.

Dumb electronics forever dormant. He shoves at the exit hatch, it grates in protest. It had once been automatic. The word echoes around his skull. It rings unfamiliar, and he repeats it out loud. It seems alien. Out of place. Slugs leave slime-trails. Spiders make webs. A plague of flies. And the snails, its their bunker now, feeding on mould. Lizards too, feeding on the slugs and snails. A new eco-system. The door lurches open, and he’s deluged. Water from outside sweeps past his lagged boots and down the steps behind him. Cascading liquid ice. Once he’d cycled through the lock to find the slope eerily populated by a million frogs. No frogs now. Perhaps the valley had once been green, before the rain, who can tell? Until every grass blade was hung with tears, causing puddles, pools, rivulets ricocheting between bushes. Converging into greedy fingered streams, squirming in shimmers, multiplying, enlarging. Decades pass, the continual erosion of a million tides, carrying topsoil far into the ocean. Now there’s no vegetation. Only a lapping lulling aquatic world of water.

He grinds his teeth, extends his arm. Wind wrenches the hatch shut behind him and he’s trapped outside. Lost in a sea of mud. His drenched hair falling over his face, sending freezing liquid stinging his eyes. There’s water when he breathes, like drowning, lungs wheeze in protest. The taste of thick fecal slime in his mouth. He reaches out, digs stub webbed fingers into the rain to haul himself slowly up the hillside. For a moment he rests, halfway up the slope, suspended in eternity. He turns, striving to pierce the deluge. Looking in the direction of the ocean. Crane. Who was Crane? Crane knows it’s there, but where he’d got this knowledge, rapidly decaying memory-cells refuse to recall. The rain is cleansing, washing away memory, leaving nothing. But there’s a mental picture. An expanse of ocean stretching away beyond a horizon he can never see. Warmed by continual submarine volcanic activity, superheating water into dense mist-spirals of steam. A continual cloud-vortex billowing upwards. He can imagine it, he’s never seen it.

He squirms around, turning inland, eyes stinging even with lids clammed shut. He curls up inside his body. Partly from fear, partly exhaustion. Then drags himself further up the slope. Now he can visualize the inland icecap. Alien, but integral. Ice covers the continent, poking glacial peninsulas towards the shore. Meeting the steam… forming the deluge. A pattern repeating forever, destroying everything but for this climate-change research and monitoring outpost, which had finally been overwhelmed. And a survivor, caught in the undertow.

He skids in the slime, arms thrashing wildly, slip-slithering downwards. His nails bite deep, securing him. Checking the slide on hands and knees. Then continues up the incline. Perilously slow. Driven only by will. Already he can envisage the hillcrest, peering into the sky, seeking the light. Glimpse it as it appeared to the lost garrison once every three months of their exile. See the light so bright it can even pierce the rain, the light that tells of others surviving somewhere south. There’d been resource-wars, targeted-strikes and counter-strikes, political internecine, they’d been abandoned here, all these forgotten years. See the light glow and die. See it pulse like adrenaline. So regularly he knows each pulse. So regularly that he can envisage its sequence as it blinks its message. The meaning lost, only the symbolism remains. Emergency lift-off.

His arms ache. Nails worn to the quick, cut and bleeding, hurting each time he gouges them into the sludge to haul himself forward. Rain stings. Splashes mud up into his face. Until he’s there. Onto the crest. For a long moment he relaxes back, then thrusts his body defiantly up, pointing his face into the rain, waiting.

He ticks off the seconds. Rain beats his face in syllables of disjointed conversation. Cold freezes his muddy lips blue. One second, and the time is here. The rain falls with a vigor that’s not abated for decades. Gathering in pock-marked pools filling his footprints with patterns of pain, cascading down the gradient back towards the ocean to renew the cycle, taking with it the last reluctant clay and grains of topsoil. He can see the beach. His friends are waiting for him there, the rest of the station complement. Their sleek amphibian bodies basking on the shingle. The urge to slither down and join their play is overwhelming. Gills. Flippers. Inhaling fluid, drawing a realm of water deep into his lungs.

And he waits.

The rain of millennia cascades over his inert body…

--- 0 ---

The ground-crew curse fluently in several languages as they slam the faulty energy-pods away. The copter glistens silver on the pad, throbbing impatiently, flanks gleaming, streaming water. The slowly revolving rotors catch the steadily falling rain, hurling it outwards viciously. Inside the sealed bubble cockpit two men wait irritably, fingers drumming on idle controls as rain drums on the perspex hood.

‘Damn time for the power to quit. We’re already an hour late.’

‘Take it easy’ muses the copilot. ‘Could be the last time we’ll fly this fool mission. Once the enquiry finds the expense of maintaining frontier posts out-balances their usefulness they’ll pull us back, below the Mediterranean perimeter.’

‘Come the day. We serve no purpose here. Might as well surrender the continent to the ice. No-one can survive down there for one week, never mind a year.’

‘Yet we must try.’

The ground-crew seal the energy-pods in place. The light begins to synchronize in gaudy flashes across the rain-drenched pad, penetrating the sheet of rain that blankets all else. The rotors whirl faster as techs scatter back towards the warmth of the bunker sunk half-a-mile into basalt.

Like a firefly the rescue craft lifts off into the steady deluge.

One hour late…


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