by Vismay Harani
Snakes. That’s what she first thought when she looked out of the viewport. Gigantic metal snakes that curled and coiled as they traversed under the ice. Even from the starboard, she didn’t get a complete view of them. Only snatches and glimpses - engine and the coaches that were dappled with the glare of the headlights of the snake they were inside.
“These are so long, they are like underwater trains,” Leila remarked, though she had never seen a train in her life. Even the pilots were confused by the reference, so she had to explain, “Long before the freeze, people commuted on land by something called the train. It was just an engine carrying a lot of bogeys, just like this, on an affixed line of metal rails. I have read about it in a book.”
She was embarrassed by their disconcerted looks. They expected her to be pretty, not well-read. And pretty she was – apple-faced, pink lips, green eyes, lustrous black hairs, and a modestly curvy body. She tried her best in these times of scarcity, and the folks appreciated it. But then she opened her mouth - they expected dumb, but she couldn’t help herself from being sharp. Being sharp meant that she wouldn’t end up being an uncomplicated, quick lay in the bed.
They were still giving her blank melancholic stares, as bringing up the topic of pre-freeze times had downed their spirits. So she asked, “How does it work? It looks quite complicated!”
There were two pilots in the cockpit. She had named the one on the left, Captain Smartass and the other on the right, Captain Humble Bumble. She looked at Humble Bumble while she asked the question. He blushed and immediately looked down, trying to formulate the answer in his mind before speaking.
But Smartass replied promptly, “It’s quite easy to follow if you have a head for such things. These sets of buttons are for navigations – up, down, left, and right. If you flick any one of them – the maw or the face of the snake plunges in that direction and the rest of the body follows on the head of a wave. You use it only when you see an obstacle, say an iceberg.”
“Isn’t the entire process automatic? The computer detects the obstacle and tries to course correct from quite a distance apart, so navigationally, only the smallest of such waves are felt in the bogeys behind the snakehead, as it computes the need for only the slightest of movements to change directions instead of heedless, reckless plunging that would result in the passengers receiving a nasty shock wave!” She said all this in one breath.
She did that to put Smartass in place and get Humble Bumble a chance to speak with her. But he plunged further within himself, having completely lost the nerve to talk to her. Smartass, on the other hand, was stung by her rejoinder and was looking overtly hostile.
Leila felt that she had overstayed her welcome, and said meekly, “You gentlemen are busy ensuring a safe journey for us all. I won’t disturb you any further.” She looked at the back of the head of the Humble Bumble when she said, “Though of course, you are free to join me for lunch in Saloon AD whenever you are on a break.” But his back remained hunched. She smiled sweetly at Captain Smartass who was suddenly disarmed by her beauty and didn’t know how to respond. Before he could, she left the cockpit.
As she walked back towards her cabin, she felt the familiar disappointment. Heiress to a large steel company, she knew how to manage a 1000+ workforce involved in scavenging and smelting the scrap metal from across the frozen Asiatic continent but somehow, she still was unable to manage the quandaries of her heart. She sighed deeply and unhappily.
There were rows and rows of cabins on both sides of the aisle, each with bunkbeds strapped to the wall, with people reading books or laughing or watching the old movies to remind themselves of the times that once were. They were happy, they were going towards the summer – an oasis amidst the frigid desert. She wished that she could kindle her heart with the same cheer they felt.
Between the residential bogies, there were lounges with easy chairs and bartenders who offers fiery drinks, there were gymnasiums and viewing ports that looked out at the ocean – occasionally a creature of deep would skirt by and the kids who gathered at the viewing stations would laugh in giddy raptures. Though they were quite below the icy cover where no sunlight could reach, the lights from the metal snakes cast the aquatic life in yellows and reds.
Soon, she reached her cabin. She opened the latch to find his father dosing off. Sagging skin, white hair, and a thin frame. She took his left hand within hers, it still had rough calluses, and the third and fourth fingers were missing – having been ravaged by frostbite, back in the old days when he was a manual scavenger who would go out from the comfort of their metropolis mountain into the dreary cold on a snowmobile to collect old-world trinkets. She was mighty proud of how far they had come.
She looked around at the cabin, there was a basic tv fitted on one end and a flowery wallpaper to hide the naked metal behind. Vents from above poured hot air inside to keep the room warm, there was a spidery web-like structure within which their luggage was ensconced.
“Look at you, worrying about your old man when you should be out, having fun and making new friends,” her father said in a wheezy, cough-ridden voice.
She just smiled and touched his head, “How are you feeling?”
“Still cold in the bones and with one leg in the grave.”
“Don’t say that. We are going to the tropics – the sun, the beach and the warmth would do you a world of good.”
It was his turn to smile at her, “It might have once upon a time, now I am just feeling chilly.”
She was suddenly saddened.
“Leila, I have spent all my life in this damned freeze. As a scout for scrap - I have seen what the world was once like – long back before that accursed volcano decided to explode and emit ash that covered the sky and prevented the sunlight from reaching Earth. Beneath tons of ice - those structures still exist, along with the dead bodies of humans and animals – who were caught in the freeze unaware. A bit of sun won’t kindle my stone of a heart. It died along with your mother,” he said bitterly.
She didn’t counter him, she just cried silently.
“No, no dear. You are my brave, little girl. I sometimes doubt that you were born to us. Your mother was like a fragile little flower while I was just a terrified pup, too afraid to do anything. She decayed like a rose every day till there weren’t any petals left, while I whined and complained all my life. You, on the other hand, plunged straight into this knotted, hellish world and grabbed it by its balls. You, my dear girl, is what this world needs. You possess nerves of steel.”
The maw of the metal snake tore through the icy crust, it didn’t have any difficulty as it was quite thin here. Then it crawled towards the airport on the ice, hovering slightly above the ground. Leila arranged for them to get into the first available aircraft so that they could fly over to the island.
As she looked around, she could see green offshoots everywhere - plants and trees in their prime. Another thing that she had not seen in her life, was moving water – tidal gushes and ebbs. There was a tangy, salty taste in the air, and she was already sweating a bit. Her dad had started to feel better; he could walk on his own without any support and a large smile was pasted on his face.
It was called the Tropicus, situated near the equator. The lottery of nature gave it just the right amount of heat, making it one of the most attractive pieces of real estate for humanity, so they opened it up for tourism and old age homes.
Leila was feeling hot. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t sweating because of the shivers but from the warmth of the sun. Despite daubing layers of skin-protection cream, she could feel the rays piercing her skin and spreading warmth within her body.
The island had a festive ambiance. Men were dressed in floral prints, shorts, and Panama hats, and women were dressed in bikinis. She had never in her life chanced upon a group of people before who would wear such minimal layers of clothing. Some stalls were peddling seafood, seashells, necklaces, surfboards, cosmetics, tickets to water-sports activities, etc.
They had a wood-log cabin at the end of the clearing of a forest. For a moment, she had difficulty breathing. All her life, she had lived in an environment with sparse oxygen, suddenly she was in an oxygen-rich surrounding.
She overheard a lady nearby, “Oh Sam, they have real deer out here! Just imagine, we could see them in their natural habitat! There is a jungle safari that takes you to the heart of the forest. Oh, I couldn’t wait to pet it.”
The excitement was infectious.
She asked her dad, who was relaxing in a hammock bound to the trunk of the palm trees, “What are you planning to do the rest of the day?”
“Oh, I am planning to spend the day at the beach. It is so amazing and awe-inspiring that once upon a time, 70% of the planet was water. Now, it’s just an ice ball.”
She too was thinking of spending the day at the beach, to feel the water beneath her feet.
It was a day unlike any other. She felt everything too deeply, she smiled easily, and she sighed often, feeling contended. She had difficulty imagining that such beauty was commonplace once upon a time on this planet. At night, they had a barbeque at the beach. Her dad had brought along a “friend” he met at the beach. She too had found a company in the arms of a boy with soft, brown eyes. They laughed a lot and ate a lot. When they were tired of doing that, they were chugging beers. At night, she could hardly fall asleep, listening to the music made by the crickets. It was an ethereal experience. She was so happy that she almost, uncannily knew that something bad was going to happen. By experience, she knew that unbridled joy brought disaster in tow.
And she didn’t have to wait for long. The news came over the radio a few days later, “There was an abrupt change in the weather yesterday, an unexpectedly cold wind is going to pass over the landmass – all the pathways to the mountains have been shut, people working outside have been called back in.” Though the radio didn’t explicitly mention the fate of the people on the island, it was a foregone conclusion that they have been left for dead.
Suddenly all the cheer on the island dropped as if it were dead weight. Closing down of all the mountain ranges meant that they couldn’t go back. It also meant that they would be hunkered down in a flimsy underground shelter with limited stockpiles of reserve that won’t last beyond a few weeks. The way the meteorologist described on the radio - the cold wave would last for several months. The beach would freeze, the forest and its many animals and birds would succumb and with limited stocks in the underground residence, they would perish. Her dad would not speak to anyone. When she went out for a walk that night, the street was deserted. Hardly a soul was lurking outside – though they knew that it would take few more days for the chill to hit them, they were too down and morose to enjoy the beautiful, fragile weather of turbulent waters.
She sank into the sand and completely broke down. Her dad had remarked that she possessed nerves of steel, but at the moment she couldn’t help crying.
She looked up in the heavens and begged huskily through her tear-stricken face, “Not like this. Not like this.”
Soon, she ran out of tears. Not thinking, she got up and went into the water. The water lapped her feet as if caressing a lover. Then they started gripping her firmly as she went deeper. The water had reached her waist, and the tide looked dangerous. By the moonlight, she saw her blurry reflection. Tears had left stain marks of mascara, her hair was frazzled, her dress looked like a wet rag as it ballooned beneath her, water tingling between her thighs.
This wasn’t how she would die.
She went back to the shore. There had to be a way out. That night she slept on the beach – thinking about ways they could cheat their impending deaths.
The next morning found her at the camp director’s office. She had prepared an exhaustive list of questions that she wished to ask the gentleman concerning their readiness to face the crisis for however long it may last. The gentleman was drunk and melancholic, unable to make head or tail of the situation they have landed in. He was only too eager to relinquish his position of authority to her, and she got going almost at once.
Control the controllable.
Her first line of action was to see the efficacy of the underground shelters and how many people it could accommodate. She realized that the shelters themselves were shoddily built and it won’t be able to hold that many people. She put people to the task of strengthening them. Furthermore, she requisitioned the metal snakes as underwater habitats. The manager of the fleet first dithered at the suggestion, then under her icy glare and the fact that they had nowhere else to go, he agreed.
The next task was of provisions – food & fuel. There was this entire jungle that could act as a reserve for food. She deployed quite a few people to forage all kinds of edible crops and fruits – she had special igloos constructed on the ice belt some distance away from the island that would act as cold storages. She did the same with the fishes caught in the fishing marathons she organized over the next few days. Poultry, which was a fledgling business on the island, she expanded its scope by including jungle fowls as well. She even got going on milk production. Her plea for drone delivery of several consignments of medicines and equipment with the mountain HQs was successful. She had also signed a treaty with them that should need arise, they would send them necessary reserves of food packets and protective clothing during the lockdown. She started storing them within special cells in shelters and the snakes. With so much water around, she deployed and remodeled all the hydrogen fuel cells to generate energy and keep them going. Doctors and technicians of all sorts were called forth from within the passengers as well as the indigenous population – and they were retrained and reskilled to tend to sick people and distended machinery. She did all this with greater gusto than she had put while she was building her steel empire.
She could see that there was a subtle shift in people’s moods and mindsets. They were still afraid, but they were no longer forlorn or desperate – they knew they had a fighting chance. Nobody looked forward to being closeted for so long within cramped shelters, but they needed forbearance and patience to survive.
Her dad was fatalistically philosophical on the subject, “It doesn’t matter whether I survive tomorrow, in all probability, I would die before the year is out. I have lived a long, arduous life, and one thing I have realized is that humanity is a doughty species – in the toughest of challenges, it would find ways and means to survive. You just wait and watch, we would best this bloody ice age as well.”
She hoped so. The chill had started to set in, she had begun moving the people inside. In her broadcast to the people on the island, she reassured them, “While it is going to be tough, we plan to survive.”
As the frost spread all around her, freezing the waters and converting them into sleets of ice, she closeted herself and her family in the snake shelter beneath the water. She needed to be on the move to try and reach out wherever her help was needed. She just prayed that they wouldn’t run out of one commodity they needed the most!
“How long did he last underwater before he became unconscious?” Leila asked.
Leila scribbled it down in a small notebook she maintained for this purpose.
“Okay, take him to the shelter and warm him up. Once he is awake, load him with food.”
Once the boy left, she sank back into her chair. She was tired and too old to do this. But the council wouldn’t hear about it, she can’t retire. She knew that she was on borrowed time, hence she wanted to play with her grandchildren. But the community wanted her to lead even as she was becoming a doddering senile, she thought wryly.
The island had not returned to its original tropical state. It was still a frozen, shriveled husk and they still lived in the shelters. It was a tough life; she had seen far too many deaths including her father, husband, and daughter. But she hardly got a moment to grieve as she had to ensure the rest of their survival. She sometimes thought bitterly that she hadn’t been a good wife, daughter, mother, or grandmother. So many sacrifices for a pointless exercise in existence!
No, it was not pointless.
A chime told her that she was required in the war room. She sighed and got up. Immediately, the boy who was standing outside rushed to her side and helped her to the war room. They all stood up respectfully as she entered. She signaled them to sit, even as she sat at the head of the table.
“Madam, we found a cache of methane,” a commander bubbled, she couldn’t contain her excitement.
“That’s fantastic news,” Leila said briskly. “Now that the mountain HQs have stopped supporting us, we need to provide for ourselves. But even that methane is useless if we don’t have someone to bore a hole and get it out of the ocean! Where are we on the Project Poseidon?”
“Ma’am, you were quite sagacious when you began that project. In the absence of robotics and a limited number of submersibles, we now have a dire need of humans who could survive in freezing waters longer than before. As you have been already informed, Kirpan lasted 25 minutes in freezing waters. He is the largest and the bulkiest of the lot, with a lot of natural fat within him and a lower surface area to volume ratio. Furthermore, we daubed him with animal fat and rolled him up in protective
clothing when we sent him underwater.”
“So the council is okay with this?”
“Longer time underwater would not only help us in laying pipes for methane but also better hunting for food. The council has approved it, Project Poseidon is a go! We will start right away.”
There were claps and hoots of joy all around the room. It has been some time since they were cheerful about something. She smiled. She could see the purpose of her life being fulfilled. She had held out as long as she could, now it was up to these young guns to take up the mantle.
They stood up and started clapping for her. She blinked back tears from her eyes. It had been a long life, filled with uncertainty and loss, but also with moments of happiness, shared memories of love, and the sheer joy of small successes. As a community and as a race, they would survive and thrive. Now all she wished for was a good night’s sleep.
Years passed. Eventually, people in the Himalayas forgot all about Tropicus and its stranded populace. Once the planet had started to thaw a little, the island again became a green haven. The people from the mountains decided to pay a visit to the island.
When their newer and sleeker models of metal snakes approached it, they found signs of humanity underwater – something that no other creature had achieved so far - artificial, luminescent mega structures that stood on their own.
When they broke through the ice, they looked around with an increased sense of wonder. Their lost brethren were not only alive, they seemed to have changed in physiology as well. There was a thick coat of hair and/or fat over their bodies, they had large eyes and somehow, they could swim in freezing waters for a longer duration of time. At first, it was difficult to interact with them as they spoke a different twang, but it got easier with time.
It was when the locals took them to the ice shrine of Leila Smith, did they understand how they survived. When tested, humans could live on very little, Leila knew that. Reserves may deplete, conditions may worsen - but if they had hope, the most important of all commodities – then they could weather any storm: a pandemic, a genocide, or even an ice age!
© 2022 Vismay Harani
Bio: Vismay Harani is a speculative sci-fi & fantasy short story writer from India. He has been writing since he was in 9th grade. He has previously been published at Black Petals, Kitaab International, Out of Print, Juggernaut & Science reporter.