A short story set in a dystopian future, SoRaMA certainly packs a lot into a few words: character, science, space travel, a tight plot and an environmental debate. We at Stranger Views are sure a lot of you science fiction fans will enjoy this short story by Andy Ritchie, because we certainly did.
This short story is taken from Andy Ritchie’s collection of short stories Gods, Aliens, Death and Teapots, available on Amazon.
‘So, this is your first time on SoRaMA, is it?’
It took more than a little effort for Cornelia to avert her gazefrom the beguiling view of galaxies near and far that filled the small window out of which she had been absently gazing. But she managed to do so and turned to find herself looking into the rugged and not particularly handsome face of the passenger in seat Fifteen-B, whose snoring she had had to contend with in the two hours since Shuttle Three-One-Six had left the Copernicus space station in near-Earth orbit.
‘What makes you think it’s my first time…Mr Tyler?’ she asked a little indignantly, spotting the name ‘Ross Tyler’ on the man’s flight suit.
Tyler smiled at her, revealing dental work in various states of disrepair. It was not a pretty sight, but it was also not out of keeping with the rest of Tyler’s features.
‘I was one of the original construction team,’ Tyler said, his Australian-accented voice laced with ill-disguised boastfulness, ‘then went on to maintenance. Seen a lot of people come and go in that time, reckon I’m pretty good at spotting a virgin.’
Tyler gave her a wink that, Cornelia suspected, was intended to be flirtatious, but unfortunately came across merely as lecherous.
Still, Cornelia thought, there was another thirty minutes before they docked with Control, and it would be good to use that time to learn more about the Array from the perspective of someone who had spent so much time on it. So, with a coquettish flick of the hair, she feigned embarrassment, suggesting to Tyler that his less-than-subtle charm offensive was actually working.
‘You’re right, of course,’ Cornelia said, forcing herself to blush just a little. For a moment, she thought Tyler was going to cheesily breathe onto his none-too-clean fingernails and then pretend to polish them in recognition of his success, but thankfully he didn’t. Instead, he shifted his position in the harness that held him secure in the weightlessness of zero gravity so that he could more easily examine her.
Judging by the approving expression on his face, Tyler clearly liked what he saw; and why shouldn’t he, thought Cornelia. She was young, extremely pretty even if she did say so herself, and her body was lean and athletic. And one thing she definitely was not was a virgin.
‘So where are you going to be stationed?’ Tyler asked, adding quickly: ‘Don’t tell me, let me guess.’
Cornelia would’ve preferred not to be talking about herself; she wanted to talk about SoRaMA. But if a little bit of verbal foreplay and a willingness to allow Tyler to study her with an uncomfortable intensity was needed to loosen the Antipodean’s tongue, then so be it.
‘You’ll be working in Array Optimisation, I reckon,’ came Tyler’s assessment after a longer-than-necessary period of scrutiny, ‘probably on the GLEAM interface. Am I right?’
Of course, he wasn’t; but that didn’t stop Cornelia from gasping in false astonishment.
‘Wow, that’s spot on,’ she lied easily. ‘And what about you, you said that you’re with maintenance?’
Her tone suggested both dumb-blonde ignorance and playful fascination, a baited hook that Tyler swallowed completely.
‘That’s right, sweetheart. Normally I’m stationed out in Pod Eight, have been for the last five years, but this time they’ve got me in Control, helping with the upgrade of the shutter motors in zone beta four-sixty. That’s convenient, don’t you think?’
Cornelia didn’t, but that didn’t prevent her from flashing him an entranced smile.
‘So how many trips have you made up here?’
Tyler turned his head to look thoughtfully away, giving the impression that the answer was so impressively high that it took a while to calculate. Cornelia suspected that, in reality, he knew the answer without thinking.
‘This is my nineteenth tour. That’s eight tours during construction, and this is my eleventh tour on maintenance. It means I’ve spent about half of the last eighteen years floating around inside tin cans, half a million miles away from home.’
Whatever she thought of Tyler’s boorish manner and his less-than-perfect standards of personal cleanliness, Cornelia couldn’t help but be impressed.
‘There can’t be many people who’ve got more experience of working on SoRaMA than you.’
‘There’s still three of the original construction crew who come up to maintain the old girl. Gus is on Pod Six, Yannick is just going back after a tour in Control, and Manny is just finishing his last tour in Pod Forty-Three. Last time I saw him he said he was going to buy himself a piece of California. But then again, he always was full of shit.’
Tyler laughed raucously, and Cornelia laughed with him, even though she had no idea why Manny’s intention to buy property in California was so amusing. After all, if Manny had done a similar number of tours on SoRaMA as Tyler had, then he could potentially be a very wealthy man indeed.
‘What about you,’ she asked once Tyler’s bout of laughter had finally subsided, ‘No plans to retire?’
‘I can’t afford to,’ Tyler replied, much to Cornelia’s surprise. ‘Those six months stints back home between tours, they can, if you let them, become very expensive, if you know what I mean.’
Tyler raised his eyebrows salaciously, another lecherous smile easing onto his lips. Cornelia knew what he meant; after all, stories had abounded all through her training of how those deployed to SoRaMA and forced to live for half a year in its unpleasantly cramped conditions with only basic pleasures available to them, more than made up for their privations once they got back to Earth, usually with expensive, occasionally fatal consequences.
‘Besides, I get a real buzz from being up here, doing what I’m doing, knowing how important it is and all.’
Cornelia shot him a surprised glance, her eyes narrowing a little. She sensed that, for just a moment, the misogynistic mask that Tyler so fervently displayed, had slipped, revealing a slightly more tender and sensitive side to his nature.
‘And there’s always the chance of a zero-g shag.’
So much, she thought, for Tyler’s tender and sensitive side. The lewd comment, delivered in a prurient whisper, made Cornelia shudder with revulsion, and finally convinced her that her thirst for knowledge about SoRaMA was not so great that she should endure Tyler’s repellent attentions any longer. In fact, she was about to suggest that, due to the combination of his bad teeth, haggard looks, poor personal hygiene and mildly over-powering body odour, Tyler was far more likely be spending the next six months honing his skills for catching the ejaculated results of a self-administered hand-job than engaging in the far-from-easy art of weightless sex with the opposite sex, when he pointed out of the window to her left.
‘There she is. Isn’t she a beauty?’
At first, Cornelia couldn’t see anything except the infinity of space, even though she knew exactly what it was she was looking for. Then again, she was looking for something black against the background of the blackness of space.
Tyler sensed her predicament.
‘Look there,’ he said, pointing slightly up and to the right. ‘You can make out Control.’
She could, recognising the collection of interconnected modules even from this distance.
‘From there,’ Tyler said, leaning as uncomfortably close to her as his harness would allow, ‘just look down and you’ll see it. Look for where you can’t see stars.’
For a few seconds, Cornelia could still see nothing…and then, suddenly, she saw it, a vast black shape against the darkness of the universe beyond, blotting out the distant pinpricks of light.
She couldn’t help but allow a little gasp of awe from escaping her lips.
SoRaMA had become fully operational on November 22, 2051, two days before Cornelia’s twenty-second birthday. Since that day, its near seven million football-pitch sized wafer-thin panels had been opening and closing in response to instructions from the Global Environment Assessment Model and its vast, worldwide network of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that included air, shallow-sea and deep-sea thermal sensors, satellite and surface sea-level measurement devices, atmospheric analysers and oceanic pH meters, to name but a few.
‘It still takes my breath away,’ Tyler said simply.
Amidst the many unflattering thoughts about Tyler’s breath, a part of Cornelia was more than willing to agree with him. The circular structure, nearly thirteen thousand kilometres in diameter, yet only thirty metres thick was, without doubt, the most awe-inspiring of all of man’s achievements, a testament to his ingenuity and to his tenacity and determination to survive. How perverse, then, that man’s first galactic wonder should be, in the words of Nobel Laureate for Physics and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Masato Tanaka: ‘…the price of mankind’s reckless, eyes-wide-open journey towards its own self-destruction, an unforgiveable burden placed on countless future generations by the iniquities, selfishness and rank stupidity of the generations that have gone before.’
‘Mind you, it’s not a lot to show for fourteen point six trillion dollars,’ Tyler opined as he eased back into his seat.
Once again, Cornelia found herself in agreement with Tyler’s observation. There wasn’t much to see, even close up, to warrant the astronomical sums involved in SoRaMA’s construction and operation, and back on Earth, where sea levels continued to rise, where ice continued to melt and where floods and droughts seemed ever more frequent, it was even harder to justify. In the last decade, many conservative politicians in those countries right across the globe that had been fortunate enough to be largely unaffected by the impacts of the rising oceans or the more frequent and extreme droughts and floods, had sought to play to populist sentiment by bemoaning the astronomical cost of the Array and the impact their weighty financial obligations had on the ‘ordinary man in the street’. Indeed, barely two years ago, when asked for his thoughts on his country’s twenty percent share of the annual $800 billion operation and maintenance costs, incumbent US President Mitchell T. Pressman famously referred to SoRaMA as ‘the most expensive sun-blind in the universe!’
In riposte to the negative memory of Pressman’s contentious sound-bite, Cornelia’s mind recalled with a smile the somewhat colourful metaphor provided by SoRaMA’s former Chief Technical Director, an irascible Scot with the glorious name of Tommy McSporran: ‘It’s easy to bitch about the cost of condoms when there’s little chance of getting the clap’.
‘Do you think people on Earth understand?’ Cornelia asked, watching the Array begin to disappear below them as the shuttle commenced its approach towards Control.
‘What…you mean about SoRaMA?’
She nodded, turning back to face him and seeing a quizzical expression on his face.
‘Are you crazy? Of course they don’t.’
She knew he was right, of course. It was always destined to be the greatest challenge for the team behind SoRaMA, explaining its purpose to a vast and largely ignorant global population. And yet, in many ways, finding a means of achieving that goal was more important than the tasks of gaining an international political consensus, of physically moving thousands of tonnes of material into space, and of assembling the largest structure in the history of mankind in the cold and hostile environment of space. Perhaps the most effective, and certainly the most simplistic, explanation of SoRaMA came from one of its principal designers, Professor Xian Du Shih of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: ‘We’ve all been trying to find ways of making the Earth cooler by altering the duvet that’s around it, because that duvet’s become too thick. What SoRaMA does is manage how warm the bedroom is, and in so doing it makes sure that whatever duvet we have, it’s the right one.’
Outside the window, neither the vast, black array nor the comparatively tiny collection of modules that was Control were now visible as the shuttle manoeuvred itself for docking.
‘The problem with this whole thing, sweetheart,’ Tyler said, with what could almost be called a melancholy sigh, ‘is that the only way to prove that it works is for it not to be here at all.’
Cornelia turned to look at him, genuine surprise evident upon her face. Tyler had, with that unexpected philosophical insight, captioned quite brilliantly the dichotomy, not only of SoRaMA, but of the entire theory of the impact of anthropogenic emissions on the global ecosystem. How do you prove an alternative when you only have one planet to play with? How do you show the world ‘what might have been’ when you can only show what is?
There had, of course, always been some insights into the realms of other possibilities, different realities created by hugely complex computer models like GLEAM, using the masses of data for a myriad of different variables to peer into the planetary future and predict how warm, how wet and how extreme the world’s climate would be in the decades to come. But, as Anthony Shard, Professor of Climatology at University College London famously said in 2019: ‘However accurate our climate models may become, the policymakers and the populous will forever doubt them. They will only believe them when we predict their town and cities will be underwater and they wake up to find they need a boat of get to work.’
Ironically, Shard’s modern-day contemporaries would be quick to acknowledge that such mistrust of models and the predictions they provided was not without foundation and that, in many ways, these portals to the alternative realities had themselves been the architects of that widespread mistrust. In the late twentieth century, early climate change models had led to doom-laden predictions of a Near-Biblical apocalypse in the space of a single lifetime. Then, when those predictions of the planet’s inevitable spiral into oblivion failed to match a less spectacular reality, as happened in the second decade of the century, deniers and contrarians seized on these inconsistencies as evidence that the dark prophesies were nothing more than the unfounded scaremongering of eco-fanatics.
And so, in order to regain the trust of the masses and the confidence of the world’s politicians, computer models were tweaked, predictions were revised and language was tempered, and the world relaxed a little in the knowledge that, even though Armageddon was still approaching, the scientists now told them that it would not be as bad as they had feared, nor arrive quite as soon as they had once thought it would.
The twenty-first century’s third decade came and went and, as the evidence of reality and the predictions of the models became yet more aligned, confidence in those models and their prophesies of the future returned, and with it the blind belief that, generations hence, when the world at last stood on the threshold of the dark abyss of irrevocable and destructive climatic change, science and politics would be there with a quick and simple solution that would tick the age-old requirements of maximum effect, minimum cost and absolutely no disruption to the norms of everyday existence.
Unfortunate, then, that those same models were to fail so spectacularly when, in January 2034, the first of a series of methane plumes erupted at the continental margins of the Pacific Ocean, a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, followed by dozens more along the Arctic coast of Russia. These discoveries immediately prompted a worldwide gasp of collective horror as the scientific community suddenly came to realise that greater-than-expected deep-ocean temperature increases had begun to trigger the release of vast amounts of frozen methane hydrate direct into the atmosphere.
As the bubbling plumes steadily multiplied, anxious policymakers clamoured for answers, although when the climate models were re-run with this new, paradigm-shifting information, many wished that they could have held on to their ignorance instead. The much-vaunted ‘tipping-point’, that moment when humanity ceased to have a say in the future of his world, and which the models had said was not due to arrive for another hundred-plus years, had already been and gone. The world, it seemed, had already embarked on the first steps of its journey into the great unknown of irrevocable, runaway global temperature rise, a future where the ice-sheets of Antarctica and Greenland would become nothing but a distant memory, and the waters of the world’s bloated oceans would soon be lapping over the submerged ruins of many of mankind’s greatest cities.
In many ways, Cornelia was thankful that she had little memory of the years between the discovery of the methane plumes and the eventual decision, six years later, to commission SoRaMA; the details of inter-governmental negotiations were of little interest to a pre-pubescent girl growing up on the outskirts of Mannheim. However, given what she did now, she could easily imagine the frequent yet interminable global conferences, summits and gatherings, at first awash with blame-apportioning, arguments, accusations and denials; eventually, and more constructively, focusing on the challenges of solution and salvation.
Some called for binding draconian cuts in the use of energy across the globe; others suggested that the only option was to ride out the approaching storm, to adapt to a world of rising oceans and more frequent weather extremes. Scientists, suddenly awash with limitless funding from desperate governments, revisited long-rejected solutions of abatement, carbon capture and radical geo-engineering, but none could delivery the results that were needed in the timescales demanded. And yet, somewhat perversely, amidst the now very real possibility of calamitous coastal flooding within a decade, there were still those who fervently denied, those who aimlessly prevaricated and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, those who still championed the ‘right’ of the individual to consume and to emit without thought or concern for the consequences. Indeed, it was in many ways the absurdity of that powerful, widely-spoken demand for ‘salvation without sacrifice’ that garnered the consensus needed to make SoRaMA a reality, an absurdity most ably summarised, Cornelia had always thought, by the words of Blossom Enjoku, General Secretary of the United Nations, when she made her historic announcement about the intention to build the Array: ‘SoRaMA is, and perhaps always was, the inevitable solution to the threat of climate change, the only politically acceptable means by which the undeniable need to prevent and reverse the inexorable rise in the Earth’s temperature could be balanced against the equally important and inalienable right of everyone, from the individual to the nation state, not only to merely survive, but to prosper and to grow.’
Who’d have thought, Cornelia remarked to herself as the docking clamps caused the shuttle to judder a little, that almost twenty years after she had watched with her parents the footage of the first of the rockets, laden with men and materials, blast-off into the clear-blue Florida sky, that she would be here in person.
‘So, sweetheart, how about you and I hook up, once you’ve settled in?’
Tyler had already unfastened himself from his harness, and was floating above her, unclipping his luggage from the rack.
With roles subtly reversed, Cornelia looked him up and down, reluctantly admiring his well-built and muscular physique, cringing at his unappealing features and relaxed approach to personal hygiene. There was simply no way that she was that desperate, she told herself bluntly. However, always the pragmatist, she did recognise that six months was a long time to go with only a finger or two for company and that maybe, just maybe, someone like Tyler might come in useful.
‘Perhaps, Tyler, you never know. I’ll call you.’
Tyler smiled broadly, maybe at the prospect of a future zero-g shag, or maybe at the apparent confirmation that, even at his age, he was still able to charm the ladies. Unfortunately, that very same smile was quickly erased by Cornelia’s next remark, as she unfastened her harness and reached up for her bag:
‘Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a Solar Radiation Management Array to run.’
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