I’ve never been much of a country boy. I appreciate it in the abstract, obviously. I’m glad it’s there, in the same way I’m glad there’s a bottom to the ocean, but my presence in it has never been very important to me. I guess we’d been stuck in the dome cities for too long. The caterpillar truck ground its way along the road network towards the mountains in the north-west, and I have to admit, things didn’t look quite as totally fucked as I’d expected. My last exposure to the great outdoors had been five or so years ago, though it’s honestly hard to tell, what with days having fucked off a while back. I wasn’t the only one who had lost track of time – most of us managed to divide our lives into roughly twenty-four hour slices. That was so hard-coded into every social practice and industry that we were kept on that track even if we lurched through them with irregular sleeping patterns and a constant sleep hangover. But actually counting the days? Why bother? I’d definitely had a feel for it in the early days. Weirdly, whether we were occupied or not didn’t seem to improve or damage my sense of time passing more. For years I’d been heavily involved in various programmes (thank you municipal gardening team), and that had saved my life and others by giving us focus, and in that focus distracting us from the world going to hell around us. In between those projects, there were breaks of course – a few days here or there mostly – notably the lengthy-feeling (I think) gap before we got moved to Freshwater (the optimistically named city where Project Tutu was underway). All those periods of mostly free time are like elastic in my mind – they could have lasted days or months, with nothing to separate the hours from turning into weeks. I remember the sense of relief that came whenever the next assignment came. Relief that there was purpose. Not hope, that hadn’t felt part of the equation since the nukes, when I’d finally realised that even if our situation was overwhelming and possibly hopeless, we sure as shit were going to do everything we could to make it worse. Purpose, routine, structure. I wonder how many people completely fell apart without those in the shell years. Anyway, this is exactly why structure’s good – you’re busy and even if it doesn’t keep you from circling the abyss it gives you a little nudge away from the edge every day. What I was trying to tell you about was the last time I’d been outside, before Project Tutu.
Back then we’d been using the train network, which worked pretty well still and was heavily used for industrial transport, smashing clean through the grey outer world. We’d been pressed up against the windows to see the sad-looking trees and fields. They were still going, reluctantly. The crappy light emitted by the shell kept them alive, but it didn’t look as if they liked it. There was still some agriculture, despite most of it having been moved inside, and there were large communities living out there too, in the non-domed towns. Caravans and trucks arrayed together, roofed over with patchworks of tarpaulin for added protection from the weather, tents looking like they were barely clinging on. The weather had become confused. Climate change had been underway for decades, but fucking up the seas by taking away the tides had knackered the gulf stream and that wonderfully mild nuclear winter had between them rearranged the clouds and weather patterns. Clouds of sometimes murderous rain swept around the world, randomly poisoning the earth, periods of heat and miserable damp cold erratically tortured the poor bastards living out there. We saw animals – the hardiest of sheep, occasional horses and colonies of haggard-looking crows and magpies.
We even saw children sometimes, playing in the camps. That was a rare sight anywhere. Despite our make-work and projects, something inside our species had said “fuck it” and the birth rate had declined spectacularly since the shell enveloped us. All the usual fears about the future being a worse place for our children had previously been kicked down the road – have a kid, it’ll probably be fine… Now? It really didn’t feel like that. Seeing those kids wasn’t just rare, it was soul-searingly depressing. Well, accidents happen I guess. They were still a highlight of any community, but no one wanted to the be the one that actually had them. What I remember most about being outside previously was the rain that started coming down after we’d been on the tracks for a couple of hours – it was a long trip – grey rain on a grey sky. Like the world had turned black and white, we’d been somehow knocked back in time a few hundred years and this was the best approximation of the real world that humanity could manage any more. The sense that we were travelling into the past gripped me, and didn’t let go until we debarked in Freshwater. I’d stopped looking out of the window before then. We all had. No one even glanced at the glass, or looked backwards as we trooped off the train. No wonder we were ready for Project Tutu and a brighter future of turning inward and forgetting about the grey, poisoned world outside.
This journey was different. For one, the caterpillar truck was a real beast. If the roads went where Corporal Lindsmane thought we should go then we used them. We ground down those roads, the neotarmac crumbling after a decade of acid rain and hard wear. Not much in the budget for road gangs these days. With a relentless eye on our direction, if a road veered away then fuck it, the caterpillar just ploughed ahead through open countryside, up hills and straight through a small river. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable ride. Lindsmane and his little mob of soldiers were back on mission. They’d properly perked up since we’d had our little tiff. I wasn’t certain whether it was having had a chance to work out a little military paranoia, or if having an actual mission had sorted them out. But they were focused and the vague air of unease around them had faded. And we’d given them this purpose. I wasn’t entirely comfortable about that. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to commandeer a squad of soldiers and this ridiculous monster truck just because someone sends you a message in a dream. I was very glad we hadn’t tried to explain that part to Lindsmane and his men. They seemed so genuinely happy that I didn’t want to spoil it for them. Or get us all shot in the head and dumped on the roadside. If I’m honest, the latter was certainly the greater motivator for me.
We bounced around in the webbing bunks, feeling rather travel sick. There was a distinct lack of windows, and although the soldiers would tolerate us hanging about near the cab and the rear of the vehicle, they got a little tetchy when we stuck around for too long. So we lingered there as long as they’d let us, soaking up the best anti-travel sickness medicine there is: looking straight out in the direction of travel and never once looking at anything that has words on it. I always got travel sick in vehicles with wheels, or worse, anything on water. Vile business. Begrudgingly, Cheshblum confessed that he sometimes suffered and had some kick-ass motion sickness tablets he was prepared to share, just so long as we all fucked off and left him alone to do the driving. Considering that these might be the very last tablets he’d ever have, we were appropriately grateful and promptly fucked off as requested. He wasn’t wrong, they were quite impressive. Gex, Scoro and I had tentatively agreed to stay in the real world until we got to wherever it was that we were going. The soldiers had been badly spooked, and again, we didn’t want to get shot by freaking them out. Plus we’d lied to them at least a couple of times, and keeping that to a bare minimum would in theory reduce any awkwardness when we reached our destination. So instead I endured reality as the tablets kicked in and that awful dry-mouthed, teeth loose in my skull sensation diminished. Eventually we fell asleep, the motion of the caterpillar finally proving to be a physical lullaby.
It had been weeks since I’d dreamed normally, wandering through the random association of my mind catching up on the last few days of trauma and unwanted excitement. I saw the door in my dream that would allow me into my ownworld, hanging over me at a peculiar angle before it was carried off by a massive owl. Dreams, you have love them. I was woken up by a buzzing sound followed by Lindsmane’s voice: “ETA approximately thirty minutes.” I’d missed the caterpillar beginning the ascent, though now that I was awake the gradient was apparent. I hustled forward, using the regularly spaced handholds to pull myself up to the cab. We were following some rough track, which seemed like a good indication that we were indeed going somewhere.
“No checkpoints, no signs of life so far,” Lindsmane commented as I grabbed onto a ceiling bar. “But we’re getting close.” He pointed to the map spread out around him, the hologram making it look as if he was a god rising up from beneath the crust. I didn’t have much to say to that, just nodded and kept looking out the windscreen. There was something coming. Even though I wasn’t in the ownworld, I could sense a pressure behind my head – some weird effect of the oneirocyte and ownworld that my brain clearly new couldn’t fit inside my skull, so it was projected somewhere behind me, like listening to music that’s been recorded so it sounds like it’s moving around behind you. I was very tempted to pop in and check, but we’d know soon enough.
That thirty minutes could have been a million years. The track wound around the sides of the mountain (mountain by our standards – in most countries this would be a big hill), spiralling us ever higher. Finally we were there, and received the reception that Corporal Lindsmane had been looking for: more soldiers. I guess it’s like being in a family: our squad had been lost in the woods, but they’d blundered back out, straight into mum and dad’s back garden. Even though there were guns pointed at us, our soldiers looked delighted, in that focused and professional way they had. There were twelve of them that I could see, both in front and flanking our sides. We’d rolled up into a much better maintained area. I’d have called it a forecourt if it was a garage, but this was a little compound of fences and razor wire, big fuck-off towers with lights on the top and more soldiers. Behind it all, a huge dark hole into the mountain. In the gloom I peered up through the top of the windscreen. Further up the mountain were more shapes, something like big radar dishes, perhaps an observatory.
“Stay here,” Lindsmane said, adjusting his hat (probably a cap or something with a proper name – beret?) and clambered out of the cab to say hello. But the new soldiers weren’t very interested in him. I mean, they were friendly enough in that military way. Lots of nods and salutes, but no big hugs. They were intent on who else was in the caterpillar. I gave them a tentative wave through the window. That appeared to have been the right thing to do: more nods. Lindsmane was back in a couple of minutes, declaring that we were in the right place,
“They’re right keen to see you lot,” he said, with an appraising look that felt like I was being measured up against some notional ideal. Perhaps against whatever mental model he had of a scientist (something I’d avoided calling us, because we really didn’t give that vibe at present). The soldiers in front stepped aside and signalled something unseen. The caterpillar lurched back into life and we drove into the mountain.