Sunk

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
September 2018

By Benjamin Mitchell, Illustrated by Evelyn Yao

4th Place in the 2018 Science Fiction Contest

Saguaros at Sunset

Oswald awoke, as he did every day, to the grating sounds of his alarm clock buzzing insistently, until he swatted the off button with his hand. He really would have rather slept in, and, as he frequently found himself doing, he wished he could whack his ten-hours-younger self for setting the infernal alarm the previous night. But he knew that today he couldn’t sleep in, no matter how much he wanted to.

Today was The Day of Waters, the annual festival within his isolated Community. It was repeated each year as celebration of all that they had accomplished since the founding of the Community six years ago, although why their current state was worth celebrating was too difficult for Oswald to fathom.

Although he didn’t feel like attending, the festival was a city-wide holiday, and attendance at the big ceremony was mandatory for all citizens. So what choice did he have, really? Plus, there was free, quality food, a rare luxury in modern society.

He kicked off the thin sheet he had lain under, sweating voluminously. He sat up, and walked to the bathroom to get a towel. He despised the weather, which had grown increasingly hotter since the ice caps had melted and started this whole nightmare. He glowered, remembering a vacation he had once taken, travelling to Hawaii for a week. Nobody could ever do that again, though, since all of the islands were underwater.

He pulled on a pair of light grey shorts and a thin short sleeve shirt. Even how people dressed had changed. Although the seasons’ names didn’t change, not for any reason other than nostalgia, they became fundamentally different from how they used to be. As the atmosphere trapped more heat, the hotter it became, no matter what season. Snow doesn’t fall on the vast majority of the world, and in some places it is too hot for all but those with nowhere else to go, barely clinging to humanity, and their life.

Tapping his thumb against the pad to the left of the doorframe, Oswald trudged outside into the austere hallways of the Community. Many factors lent themselves to the feeling of cold emptiness that seemingly clung to the walls of the Community. There was the lack of plants, due to how inhospitable the hot environment had become to most plants. There were also very few windows showing outside the Community, but this was because there was nothing to look at. The extreme heat had dried out all of the plants in the vicinity, and the only source of water, a landlocked lake, was isolated from the terrain by the technology of the Community, which periodically siphoned some of the lake’s pure water. The lack of plant life had severe effects on the ecosystem. Much of the flora died due to lack of things to eat, and without plants to hold it down, dust swirled around the barren landscape like the souls of the dead plants and animals. Not that it mattered—after all, because the Community was located in rural Nevada, crisis or no, there would still be nothing but dirt and sand to look at.

Oswald reached the end of the stark hallway and pressed a button, signaling for an elevator. This wasn’t actually the worst it could get, he begrudgingly accepted. The Community, a safe house for people displaced by the disaster that had gripped the Earth in its hand, was one of the most well-equipped communities in the world. It housed over 10,000 refugees inside its shining walls and had stockpiles of food to last for ten years. Not that it needed it, though; the Community was self-sustaining. It grew crops beneath the compound, and collected rain water as well as purified the water from the nearby lake. And besides, it would all be over in about five years anyways.

The elevator beeped, and the doors slid open, letting Oswald step inside. The elevator was already full of members of the Community, most of whom were dressed more elegantly than Oswald. The stainless steel doors slid closed, and the elevator rocketed up, fast approaching the Parlor. With another resolute ding, the elevator stopped, and the elegantly dressed party-goers disembarked.

The Parlor was the fanciest section of the Community, which is to say that there was no stainless steel in sight. Today it was filled with cushy red folding chairs, each facing the stage, where a classical orchestra was playing. Later in the day, the High Chancellor of the Nevada Community would be giving his Day of Waters address there. For the time being, though, the seats were empty, and all of the guests were bustling around, talking and eating. Oswald waded his way through the crowd of people, grabbing a cheesy potato gratin from a passing server as he walked. Or rather, it was a substitute for potato, since most of the potatoes had been submerged when the ice caps melted, raising the water level more than 200 feet over what it had been previously.

Oswald’s stomach growled hungrily as he neared the food table. The table was covered with an assortment of foods, as exotic as they came these days. Although the Community couldn’t serve any fish, sushi, or shrimp, as a result of the toxicity of the water, they made up for it by training skilled chefs to create top of the line pastries and elegant meals. But that didn’t stop Oswald from craving sushi. He swiped a bear claw from the table and contemplated all the foods he couldn’t eat anymore. Seafood was an impossibility, more trouble than it was worth; when the climate grew warmer, the permafrost in Alaska melted, revealing a nasty surprise for the people of Earth: there were about 800 million kilograms of mercury hiding there. That, coupled with rising waters, proved to be a disaster. Countries scrambled to contain the mercury, but they were too late, and it leached into the water, killing almost all ocean life in a span of a few months. At the same time, water rose, spreading the deadly waters inland, killing some people and destroying many crops and animals to the point of extinction. One such casualty was Northern California’s wine country; although it was left mostly high and dry, the mercury in the water managed to leach into the ground and kill all of the crops.

Oswald scowled as he bit into his bear claw, chewing aggressively. The world was an astronomically different place now; many coastal countries, mostly in Europe, were unable to maintain their governments in the face of the disaster, and their lands had dissolved into anarchy. Larger countries, like America and Russia had been forced to retreat within their borders and build compounds like the Community. Only when people banded together could they survive the intense heat, toxic seas, mass extinctions, and lack of water. If the world wasn’t at the brink of destruction, perhaps it could have been viewed as poetic. On that note, Oswald seized a chocolate-covered profiterole from the table and bit into it, feeling immensely better with each bite.

Loading a handful of truffles onto a plate, Oswald made his way to the seating area and sank into one of the cushy chairs. Taking a truffle in hand, Oswald proceeded to deposit it in his mouth, as the orchestra stopped playing, prompted by the appearance of the High Chancellor of the Community. He was smartly dressed in a simple suit and tie so dark they looked like a void in which everything had been devoured by some hungry creature.

He smiled crisply to the now seated members of the Community. Oswald ate another truffle.

“Hello, good people of the Community. I will try to keep this short so you may return to the festivities. I bid you good health on this auspicious day; six years ago today I founded this Community, to give the people of a downtrodden Earth a place to live while the effects of the melting ice caps persisted,” said the High Chancellor. Oswald found it remarkable that the Chancellor could keep smiling this long.

“And today, I have some especially splendid news to impart on you. Now, before I tell you, let me explain. The world was in a precarious position prior to the disaster that brought you all here. It looked to many people like the world was going to end. They needed assurance that should humanity be pushed to the limits they feared, they could still survive, and even thrive in an apocalyptic landscape. And so the Community was created as a peacekeeping initiative, a way to keep the people at ease.”

“We built the Community in an isolated area of Nevada and called it a top-secret government base. It drew a lot of suspicion, but ultimately that was effective in keeping people from guessing the truth. You probably know of it as Area 51. We then set up water siphons in Lake Groom, the lake encompassed by Area 51. We created an artificial habitat here, a place that could trick its occupants into thinking that they really were trapped in a nightmare come true. Because it wasn’t enough to show people that they could survive; people needed to know that they could survive. And so, a world-altering event was staged. One so terrible that nobody would question its believability. We sent a disaster warning to the surrounding counties, calling for a mandatory evacuation to the Community, where they’d be safe. You were called to live a lie so the rest of the world would know that, in the event of a disaster, they would still be safe.”

He paused to let that sink in.

“But what I am trying to get at here is that it’s over. The people around the world are reassured. And so: you can all go home now! The Apocalypse wasn’t real! Isn’t that great?”

The room was dead silent. The mixture of anger and happiness that radiated in the room was so palpable that even the High Chancellor’s enduring smile faltered.

“Anyways, rejoice! Party away! Tomorrow you go home!”

Still quiet. The High Chancellor looked a bit frightened of the mob at this point.

“You’re all probably pretty shocked. I’ll send some more drinks around, to lighten the mood.” It was still as quiet as the grave.

“Well, I’d love to join you all, but I’ve really got to go; there’s a lot of paperwork to be done, and I’ve got to cash in my paycheck. Enjoy the party!”

Benjamin Mitchell Sunk

Benjamin Mitchell, 13
Davis, CA

Evelyn Yao Saguaros at Sunset

Evelyn Yao, 11
San Gabriel, CA

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