Synopsis: When the whole earth caught fire, the survivors sought refuge underground. But what if the substance that caused so much damage could also bring salvation?
Even the thin grey dawn light was dangerous, but Zara was close to the cave opening. This foray had been successful and her little jerry can sloshed with petrol, just enough for the last assassination. She loved the smell of petrol, so pungent and volatile, and so very hard to find. As usual, her feet were blackened and the surface ash filled the lines on her hands and face with thin grey spider webs. The communicon unit glowed pale green inside her pocket and as she approached the cave mouth, she pressed her thumb against its smooth scan panel. Blip. The entrance sensor flickered off and she descended, still pleased that the former clumsy trip wire system had finally been replaced. Progress!
The cool air brought a familiar scent of home from the subterranean metropolis; a mix of ancient black shale and stale human sweat. She moved down on rough hewn steps, past layers of loose rock, down through the coal bed and deeper through layers of sandstone and fossils from the ancient inland sea. Deeper still came the hard volcanic layers that had once flowed as lava and that had folded and cleaved into the natural cave system she called home. They had christened the city Petra, like the ancient Jordanian wonder of the world, and like its namesake, Petra was also a façade, not planned but forged out of the rock, out of an urgent need to survive. In the end it was the natural environment of the place that ensured that survival. Zara’s father correctly predicted that they would find an access point to the Great Artesian Basin, the vast subterranean aquifer fed by one hundred year old rain. A large soak of crude oil was also discovered in the first few days but no one dared suggest any use for it, certainly not to burn for light.
Her earliest memory fragments were of an endless summer that ended when the earth burst into flames. The atmosphere so thin and fragile that solar flares sparked wildfires. Forests burnt so hot that trees exploded and the ember attacks in turn brought down towns and eventually whole cities. Anything would burn if it got hot enough. She remembered death, anger, loss and a blacking out of the sun by plumes of ash. In the darkest days there were vigilante attacks on the people responsible: mining bosses, coal magnates, oil barons. With crops gone and stores destroyed food was scarce, rivers had boiled in their beds; the hungry days had begun. Thirst. Running. Hunger pangs. Sheltering in an underground car park with other families. People who never came back. Her father staying up long into the night with a geology textbook, studying a topographic map. A hot and thirsty trek across charred landscape and rubble and the final breath of relief when they descended into the cave system that would become their haven.
Zara emerged into the still centre of Petra. The largest cavern was lit with a myriad of softly glowing solar lanterns. There was no traffic here, no rumble of engines, no fumes. After stumbling past the entrance sensor, newcomers were stopped and examined. Usually they had distorted red faces, solar flare blisters and sunburn and if they still had voices, they begged for water. Most were taken through the narrow crevasse into the migrant quarter and jailed in temporary isolation caves as part of their quarantine. Many complained about the lack of light there, but none complained about the abundant drinking water or food.
As she moved through the Justice Centre she glanced at the cave that held the last political prisoner. Above his cell in bright white ochre were the words: DESTROY THE DESTROYERS. Tomorrow he would breathe the breath that killed him. So subtle, yet so deliciously ironic. She wondered what sort of job she would be given after the assassination and hoped it wasn’t something dull like birth-mother. She’d been working on a little project almost ready to be revealed. She stopped in at the little library of unburnt books and checked out the Ford Engine Maintenance Manual. She didn’t want anything going wrong tomorrow.
On the way to her workshop, Zara passed the solar rooms. Holes had been drilled to allow sunlight to shine down from the surface. In some rooms, the light fed panels and solar batteries that powered all the technology in Petra; from cooking to communications devices, solar was the only power they needed. Some of the wide caves were bathed in sunlight that bled through small holes and cracks which was then carefully filtered through wire mesh and moss. Plant seeds rescued from the surface thrived into forms and shades of vibrant green chlorophyll. In the taller rooms an olive was fruiting for the first time and a pecan was groaning under the weight of its annual crop. Fast growing tropicals including papaya and tamarillo were favourites with the little ones. In the smallest chamber, unfiltered sunlight was used to garner confessions from prisoners. It only took ten minutes in the gaze of that death god for people to plead, blister, bleed…and then confess.
In the early days, when the group had strengthened, there had been raiding parties who dragged people out of underground bunkers- politicians, corrupt officials, mining company CEOs- anyone deemed responsible for mass scale environmental destruction, the loss of culture, the decimation of human civilisation. The holding cells filled up and the assassinations became an important cathartic puzzle piece for cleansing the past. As the prisoners grew fewer, the deaths had become more planned, ritualised; an annual rather than daily event.
Billy was waiting for Zara in the workshop. His pale arms were blackened to the elbows and his face was streaked with oil. He smiled a boyish grin. “I’ve greased the ball joints. What’s next?” Zara put the engine manual down on a clean part of the bench and carefully turned to the pages about servicing the carburettor.
“Clean the battery terminals, they’re a little corroded.” Billy grabbed some steel wool and got to work. Zara poured a small amount of precious petrol into a shallow dish, enjoying the pungent vapor. “I’m going to clean the needle and seat. I also think there’s a blocked jet. Once that’s done we can do a practice run.” Billy smiled, eager to get back behind the wheel.
When Billy was younger, Zara started taking him with her on night-time trips to the surface. He had never known the earth in daylight and the two moved across long distances together, roaming, looking for useful items. He’d shown a keen interest in cars. Most were mangled lumps but occasionally they would discover a vehicle that was partially intact, or one that would splutter into life. There had been much discussion, but Zara finally convinced the elders to let her and Billy reconstruct a car. Permission was given with a number of conditions. Zara was to meticulously document the workings of the internal combustion engine. While the burning of fossil fuels was considered evil and blamed for mankind’s demise, knowledge of mechanics could be valuable in the future. She was also to design an extraction system for removal of the dangerous carbon dioxide. The elders finally agreed to her plan when she proposed to use the carbon dioxide emitted by the exhaust system to exterminate the prisoners. Poetic justice.
After checking to make sure the surface vent was open in the adjoining death chamber, Zara and Billy carefully examined the exhaust hose for cracks or leaks. Once they were sure there were no problems, they were ready. This time she let Billy sit in the driver’s seat and talked him through the process of ignition. He’d tried a few times before, but Zara needed to make sure he wasn’t going to flood the engine. The car rumbled into life and then stalled.
“You have to give it a little more gas. Try to keep it smooth, regular.” He tried again and this time the engine rumbled loudly, then settled into a deep mechanical purr. “Nice one. Keep it even.” Billy frowned in deep concentration and licked his lips. His hands rested on the useless steering wheel. “Tomorrow you’ll be doing this for real.”
“How long will it take?”
“He’s already frail. Maybe an hour.” Billy stared straight ahead and tried to imagine an earth he’d never seen in daylight. Streets. Wide open roads.
“I want to know what it’s really like to drive, to move so fast across the earth that it feels like flying.”
“Maybe one day you’ll find out.”
“I hope so.”
In the dim light from the surface dawn, the people gathered in the sacred place at the water’s edge. The rock above glistened and dripped with moisture that cooled the chamber with a sweet ancient breath. The pool glowed and fizzed with a blue effervescence that extended into the infinite blackness of the cave system.
When the fractured light formed an intense natural spotlight on the cave floor, the gathered crowd grew still, expectant. An elder in a long patchwork robe motioned for the the last prisoner to be brought forward into the light. The man tried to pull away but was held firmly in place; forced to his knees, back to the crowd. His tissue white skin reacted at once and it took mere seconds for his shoulders and back to hiss and blister.
“Bernard Steven Hayward. You are accused of environmental vandalism.” He shivered and squinted at the faces around him.
“You were CEO of Deepwater Horizon.”
The crowd responded, “filthy oil miner.”
The prisoner was shaking and he rocked on the spot.
“You bribed officials and destroyed legislation that would reduce emissions.”
“Filthy fuel burner.”
“You spilt eleven million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”
“And you have confessed!” A gurgle came from his throat as he attempted to speak, barely audible.
“I…I…I didn’t know. I did it for my shareholders.” A buzz went through the crowd who erupted into ripples of laughter.
“Your shareholders are dead. You killed them. We hold you responsible for the incineration of three thousand years of human history, the destruction of cultures, the devastation of wilderness, the final decimation of the atmosphere and the complete annihilation of the water cycle.” The man began to convulse in big silent sobs as the crowd cheered and clapped. He’d been waiting a lonely fifteen years for this moment.
Zara waited for the noise to subside before stepping forward from the shadows. From between her toes to the tips of her hair she had covered her naked body in a thick layer of glossy crude oil. Only the flash of blue from her eyes and the whites of her teeth betrayed her as being human. “I wish to speak.”
She moved forward and put her hand on the naked man’s shoulder, leaving a dark handprint on his red white skin. “Today we condemn the last environmental villain. We will burn fossil fuel for the last time and he will drown in the same odourless gas that ruined our precious planet.” The crowd was silent, expectant. “But today is not our past. Today begins our future.”
She motioned for the guards to move the prisoner out of the light, and took his place. The crowd hushed as she turned slowly in the intense spotlight, a full circle. Whispers. Murmurs. Disbelief. “I’ve been outside…in the sunlight….and I did not burn.” She stopped and faced the crowd. “I know how we can return to the surface,” the murmurs and voices grew louder, “the oil that destroyed us can save us!” Zara stood in the light with arms wide, palms opened towards the crowd.
The people who were there that day will attest that the light swirled and danced around her, then began to dim as it was absorbed into her body.
She was their statuesque saviour.
An onyx idol of black sunlight.