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Mike Adamson’s “Escape Vector”

Mike Adamson holds a Doctoral degree from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, Mike returned to study and secured qualifications in both marine biology and archaeology. Mike has been a university educator since 2006, has worked in the replication of convincing ancient fossils, is a passionate photographer, a master-level hobbyist, and a journalist for international magazines. Short fiction sales include to Little Blue Marble, Weird Tales, Abyss and ApexDaily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction and Nature Futures. Mike has placed over 130 stories to date.

Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:

 

Escape Vector

by

Mike Adamson

 

My mother used to say, “no matter how hard you try, Jenny Green, you just can’t polish a turd.” She’d say that when we’d look out our windows at clouds of grey and brown, the wind throwing grit against the glass, and we’d wonder what was to become of us. We weren’t the ones who broke the world, just the ones who had to live in it.

That’s how I grew up, scrabbling for what I could win, in the rising heat as Britain changed out of all recognition. When my mother was a girl she saw the last days of green fields and blue skies, but not in forty years has there been a day in these islands that the sea didn’t rise or the wind scour what clings to existence.

My folks were originally from Trinidad, and they somehow weathered the craziness in the early 21st century. They stayed and did their best in a world going to pot, but this is 2106, and thirty metres of sealevel rise has changed everything.

I sit at the controls of my all-terrain truck, the wind rocking her on stout suspension, and I smile secretively. I can’t help myself, for no matter how appalling the sights out there, the scorched earth, the ghostly shapes  of dead trees, the ruins where there were once villages and towns, I know something that leads me to suspect my mother might have been just a tiny bit wrong.

Since temperatures passed a critical maximum, and oxygen level a critical minimum, Earth is no longer suitable for higher lifeforms. Over 90% of the human race has perished in the last ten years, survivors are crowded into habitat cities and underground redoubts all over the world. And you can still get off the planet, if you can pay. The fatcats who broke the world, they’re all safe and sound in air conditioned comfort, on space cities out there trailing the Moon, while the few left down here are either the caretakers of what resources remain, the hopeless and aimless, or are the dispossessed, the outlaws, those who will never leave. I’m lucky enough to have a job, I patrol through these lands, coordinating with drones, monitoring the progress of oceanic encroachment and effects upon the dead cities. It’s a strange living, but a living all the same, and I keep a tiny apartment in a habitat tower in Oxford, twenty-five kilometres north-west. My little boy Jake waits for me there, and I worry for him every day.

But I might just have a way out.

Right now I have a worrying contact on my instruments. Sensors are telling me there’s another vehicle out there, and above all I mustn’t be observed. It’s a trick I can’t do twice, and I’ll be damned if anybody else will beat me to the prize. My gloved hand goes to the automatic at my hip and I scowl into the gloomy day. If it comes to a fight, so be it.

My truck stands in what used to be rolling farm country due west from Henley-on-Thames, that genteel centre of the good life on the line between Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The town itself is now a wind-ravaged wilderness of broken glass, tumbled brick and blackened timber stretching along the banks of a dark and swollen river. The sea has swallowed up London, all the haunts of the rich that used to be, the core of civilisation and commerce, has drunk it down like some modern Atlantis, and followed the line of the river with a probing arm of heated brine. The estuary reaches almost to Henley now, and is still rising, so I must act  on what I have learned soon or the sea will take away my chance.

I pick up low gear and the truck moves off, great tyres crawling over rocks and debris as  my head beams stab through the murk. The GPS satellites are still up there, thankfully, so navigation is not a problem. A definite snag would be the security systems around rich people’s property, but I’m not planning to enter.

I sneer with undisguised contempt. Until the sea destroys them, the great country estates remain the property of those who have fled the Earth. Sprawling houses, armoured against heat and fire and wind, are guarded by robots, in the hopes they can be reclaimed when the day comes their owners’ descendants return from the sky. Until then, those of us who monitor things watch over them on behalf of people who will never allow us to escape this hell. It’s called a job, and I must be grateful I have it.

But I don’t have to trespass. I know things that make all the difference,

Kenworthy Hall was one of the ancient aristocratic estates, dating from the late Middle Ages, and the Willaston family inhabited it for some six generations before decamping to Space City Europa in 2098. Their assets are entailed, wealth is just numbers in computers no longer even on the planet, but even those who had developed an ethereal unreality to their existence are known to have left behind entirely tangible remainders.

Closing in from the south, I pull the truck through the gloom of afternoon, scanning for the other contact out there. Who could possibly know what I was up to? I was very careful as I searched old databases, indeed I had spotted the golden clue in the most innocuous of places, nothing to do with Burk’s Peerage or the registers of land and title… Just ancient society columns, the kind of sniggery fun with which ordinary people viewed their betters a hundred years ago.

Well, there’s Emmett… He’s been good to me and Jake these last years. He’s a software engineer with the tower admin group. He was around the night I stumbled on the clue, and at the time I never imagined he knew anything that had passed across my tablet. I even wiped my browser history to be sure, but… Something about Emmett troubles me. He seems a nice guy, he’s good looking and well built, always cheerful and assured, the kind of strength you look for in an uncertain life. But he makes too many calls at odd hours to people he never speaks of, and has access to all sorts of important data behind the scenes of the block’s administration. I like him but I’m not sure of him, which is why I’ve not as yet included him in my plans. If things work out, maybe, but not until then…

A marker flashes on my GPS console map as I close in, and at last pull the truck to a halt. My radio loop is quiet and I flick my headset pickup. “Scout Six to Survey Base, do we have anyone else in the Henley area at this time?”

Static, a few crackles, then the dispatcher is in my ear. “That’s negative, Six. What’s your situation?”

“Taking a look around Kenworthy Hall. All quiet on the automatics but I picked up an EM trace of another vehicle a few minutes ago.”

After a moment the voice returns. “Understood. Step carefully, Jen, could be unregistered traffic. There’s no one unaccounted for on our system, and other regional centres are also nominal at this time.”

“Proceeding with care,” I reply, voice level and unconcerned. The unknown contact has provided me an excuse to be in this place at this moment. So, time to get to work. My first task is to ensure the external video pickups are off. It’s dead against the rules, but I can cry malfunction.

#

The rear airlock of the truck opens, revealing a hellish environment. Wind and cloud are thick, afternoon is dim as dusk, and I have just hundred-metre visibility. In my survival suit, I pass gear from the lock chamber onto a platform, then swing down a ladder to the iron-hard ground, and look around. I seems to stand on Mars, yet it feels more like a Venus wanna-be, and I don’t even make the connection to the blue and green world my mother knew so long ago. I can’t any more, it’s too painful to see old pictures and try to imagine this place when it was alive.

I’m on top of the GPS coordinates I carefully researched from old county survey maps, and take out a metal detector to sweep the area. I find the buried electricity conduits my map shows, projected into my faceplate, and know the sewers are close by. I’m looking for a concrete junction unit where the collective discharge pipe from Kenworthy Hall meets the district main line, and, according to my map, I’m where an old slip road once joined the driveway of the house.

The building is a hunched shape against the dark sky, the forest in its gardens weathered to sticks and grasping limbs that writhe, gesticulating in the gale, but I am far enough from the old walls not to trip the local security systems. The house’s AI might send a robot to look through the gates at some point, but all it will see is a Survey Division truck on some unspecified task.

The conduits match the old chart, and with a sharp nod I set aside the gear and jog back to the truck. Once inside I free off my faceplate to enjoy cool cabin air as I turn her and engage super-bottom, dropping the dozer blade under the chin of the cab. Now I shunt with practised care, scraping away the rocky topsoil, shovelling it aside into a berm of dirt that smokes eerily in the wind. I cut the trench in, the full width of the truck, ten centimetres per swathe, and a metre and a half down I encounter concrete. High pressure air lines blow dirt away in a roiling cloud, and I back her off, stare at the revealed square of concrete in the shafts of the head beams, and nod with a hard grin.

Getting close.

I take a few moments to scan the surrounding area once more, listening for the EM flare of that other vehicle. I can’t be seen, I mustn’t be interrupted… My life depends on it, any chance Jake has for a better future begins here, and there’s nothing a mama won’t chance for her youngster. So I grit my teeth and head back outside, to unwind the winch cable from the bow of the truck and slither down into the cutting.

This is the junction box, it acted as an old sedimentation trap, first step in filtration, though such things were never cleaned out. I find the access points and snap the big hook of the winch through eyebolts, to take the remote control and begin to recover cable. The truck stands solidly and the concrete slab hatch begins to rise with a grinding of stone on stone. Abruptly it frees with a rush and I ease the winch, to hold the slab at fifty degrees from horizontal. That’s plenty, and I shine a hand lamp into the sump.

A level of dry dirt, nothing special… But when I sweep with the metal detector, the tone in my ears sings a sweet and beautiful note. I look around one more time, then take a shovel and a tough plastic sack, drop into the sump and sweat freely as I fill it.

You see, according to the old society columns, the Willaston family were so superbly rich they could afford any indulgence at all, and for many years in the 21st century were famous users of gold dust capsules. Not for any therapeutic value, merely the childlike and elitist joy of passing turds that sparkled like stardust. It was one of those excesses of the old world incomprehensible to the strictness of the new, but apparently many could afford to dispense with considerable sums of money to eat the base tender of their society. They were notorious for not even bothering to filter it back. Gold dust  falls from suspension in fluid because it’s heavy, and over the years it collected in this sump. When I pause and shine my light on the calf-deep sediment, it shines like a million points of light, and I grin as I tie off the first sack and heave it out.

I’ll take it all. Gold has kept its value as the baseline of the currency system, one of the few forms of exchange that has, and when I’ve separated it by fluid suspension from the sediment, basically panned it free of the dirt, I’ll have enough, hopefully, for two tickets to Space City Europa. I must hurry, they say there may be only one shuttle this year, the cities were essentially full years ago and they are only taking enough bodies to replace the mortality rate.

But as I work a dread feeling comes over me. That other contact out there… Outlaw traffic? Scavengers work over the old world, extracting anything of value, parts, supplies, materials, and should they imagine there was gold in this sewer my life would be worth precisely nothing. I rest my back, panting, and scan around the edge of the hole, though I see nothing over the berm of dirt to each side.

A second sack goes up, and a third, and I climb out to heave them onto the truck, placing them in an external stowage bay. I need to hide them somewhere out here, come back on later patrols to do the separation, and until then they are vulnerable. But it takes daring to change your world, and no little courage, and I drop back into the sump to attack a fourth sack.

I have the sump almost cleared out, just shovelling up the last loose dirt, when I pop my head up to take a quick check, and the hairs rise on my nape.

Damn…

Between the berms, I see the cones of flashlights through the blowing dust some way off. That other contact—it was no coincidence after all. I lean on the side of the chamber, panting softly, and bare my teeth. However they found out, they’ll not stop me. There’s not enough to go round, and only a very few ever climb out of this Hades. It’s not going to be them.

I stoop and tie off the bag, then look up one last time, and out of the orange haze of late afternoon stride two figures. The survival suits are stock standard, out of anyone’s catalog, bear no insignia, and each figure carries an assault rifle. Dirt-pirates? One good reason the truck’s external surveillance cam is meant to be operational. If Control observed a standoff they would signal the robot guards a few hundred yards away in Kenworthy Hall to assist me, but I’ve potentially dug my own grave here.

With pounding heart I watch them come, striding out of the gloom, and I adjust my com band, hunting for theirs. Only so many preselected channels… They may be right off the spectrum, though, staying dark to avoid monitoring. Their vehicle is obviously dark, I picked up only the  EM crackle of its electric drive and all official craft are accounted for…

A flashlight sweeps across the cutting and I crouch to avoid it, know it’s splashing the truck. I hear the crunch of boots in the dirt now, coming through the drone of wind, and know I’m out of time and options. I draw my pistol and flick off the safety. Maybe distance and wind will distort the shots so far the drones at the hall won’t register them—I can only hope.

I hold my breath, visualise the shot, and when the torch beams bathe the cutting I rise in a whirl, bring up the weapon and fire almost point blank, lifting each man off his feet and dumping him in the dirt, rifles flung wide.

My heart races like a frightened bird and I pant in shock at my own actions. But I’m also a pragmatist and what’s done is done. I sheath the weapon and heave out the last sack, plus all my tools, then go to the bodies. I kneel and shine a light into each face, half-seen behind tough plastic. One I don’t recognise, a white, bearded face, strangely peaceful in death… The other is Emmet.

Sonofabitch.

So he did know, and was playing both ends against the middle, working for the city and running with the grit-rats. I breathe a shaky sigh and shake my head. I’m sorry for what I’ve done, but sorrier that I was ever webbed in with one of the dangerous kind. Best he was never heard of again… With teeth clamped, I force my hands to work, toss the rifles into the sump, then drag and roll the bodies after them, and the day is nearly done when I load up my gear and ease the slab back into place with the heavy cable. I stow the hook and reboard my truck, and the dozer blade makes short work of the berms, filling in the cutting once more.

The wind will erase all sign of my work here in a day or two, it will once more be simply wandering ripples of dust and grit where once there was life. Emmett is now missing, and there will be an inquiry, but whatever criminal group he was working with can hardly come forward. They may find their vehicle in the dark, but it’s doubtful they’ll ever know what became of their men. I’m not proud of myself today, and regret that blood was the price of freedom; but they would have disposed of me without a second thought and taken the ride the gold will buy, and there would be even less justice in that.

I head off on my patrol, call in when I’ve calmed my voice, with nothing to report, all quiet at the old hall, and begin a circle route back to Oxford. I know where I’ll stash the gold, a surviving hangar at the old airfield at Abingdon. I can swing by there a few times in the weeks ahead with the gear to wash the gold out, and then… I know the people who know the people who can get you anything, for a price, including a couple of tickets to fly.

I set the truck to autopilot and let my hands shake for a long while, but as it crawls steadfastly on through the gloom, I calm, and sigh, long and deep.

Gold still opens doors, and that means maybe mama was wrong, after all. Because, just occasionally, and with a lot of hard work, you come across a turd that can actually take on a lustre.

THE END

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Stephen Corbett
Stephen Corbett
6 months ago

Excellent story. Enjoyed the read. Thanks

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