I dove headfirst off the cliff this morning in what looked like a suicide attempt. A strong wind swept me up and deposited me back on the grass, several meters from the precipice. The others were aghast, of course; my father, especially. I’m the Heir to the Throne, so to speak. If there’s going to be a Throne left. Why am I even here? It’s my duty to…
The flap to the tent opened. Without turning around, Paul Barrow knew it would be his father. He stopped writing and waited, knowing the old man would gather himself first, letting his anger steamroll into an outburst. But he closed the diary and placed the pen beside it. Waiting.
A faint whiff of something fragrant graced Paul’s nose, and he realized someone else had entered the tent behind his father. Not his mother; she left discipline and recriminations to the old man. The only other viable options were Liza Talbot or her daughter, Alexandra Sinclair. Unless, of course, one of the men had a secret he was willing to reveal now that the hunting party was isolated and lost. Alexandra, then, Paul concluded. But why?
His father cleared his throat, and muscles knotted in Paul’s shoulders. At forty-four, the old man was not really that old, but he was so-called around CommEarth corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Paul even referred to him obliquely as the old man, although a sneer sometimes accompanied the reference. After another coarse “ahem,” the question reverberated throughout the tent like thunder.
“Just what in the hell did you think you were doing?”
Still, Paul did not turn around. “I should have thought that would be obvious,” he said, his soft voice a sharp counterpoint to his father’s inquiry.
“You scared the shit out of me,” said Barrow. “Your mother as well. What were you trying to do, kill yourself?”
Paul knew it would do no good to respond with the truth, but he made the attempt anyway. “I was trying to prove a point,” he replied, and now stood up and turned around. As tall as his father’s six-foot, but with far more brown hair, Paul had inherited most of his softer looks from his mother. Though he hardly looked effeminate and certainly was nothing of the sort, his father continued to regard him as a creature of a weaker species. Even now, in the dim light of the tent, Paul felt the weight of his disrespect and disgust. You’re going to succeed me as president and CEO? the old man seemed to be saying by his bearing and attitude.
Not if I can help it, Paul thought. But he had yet to summon the courage to say as much to him.
Behind Barrow and to one side stood Alexandra Sinclair, tall and slender and aloof. But now, the expression in her dove-gray eyes was hard for Paul to read in the shadow of his old man.
“And I suppose you’re writing all this down in your journal,” Barrow fleered and wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead with a dirty handkerchief. “Christ on a popsicle stick! What the hell would you have written had you succeeded?”
The point was that I did not believe I would succeed, thought Paul. But he withheld the words because they would only keep his father in the tent longer.
“It’s a diary, Pop,” he said instead, for the umpteenth time.
“Diaries are for sissies.”
Paul’s chest rose slightly and fell under the green jersey, his sigh inaudible. After a moment, silence won out. Barrow thrust the tent flap open and left, leaving behind a “Bah!”
Alexandra, to Paul’s mild surprise, remained, tilting her head to one side as she regarded him with a curious expression. A smile toyed with the corners of her thin mouth.
“Am I in your diary, Paul?” she asked.
The smile died stillborn. “Oh.”
Idiot, Paul told himself after Alexandra ducked from the tent. We’re stuck here, and she’s the only female available for companionship. But the notion faded quickly; he had other problems to solve.
Sunlight heated Paul and brought forth beads of perspiration as he emerged from his tent. Along with his, the other four tents had been arranged in a circle, rather like wagons against natives in the Old West. Except they had yet to encounter any natives. He shaded his eyes and gazed out at the rolling savannah with its sparse, browning grass and its sprinkling of solitary trees; at the dense mixed forest on the hillside that bordered the encampment; and then, turning around, at the ocean beyond the cliffs and the narrow river that became a waterfall as it spilled down into it. The cliffs reminded Paul of the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland, although these were but twenty feet high, if that. Near the precipice grew a copse of trees, and just landward of that rested what remained of the Cessna. The pilot, Roberto Dario, had been thrown clear and, presumably, over the cliff. They had not spotted his body in the rocks below—the rocks toward which Paul had dived head-first without success.
It occurred to him that he had no sense of direction in this place. He might assume that west lay in the direction of the sun’s motion—the sun was in fact headed toward the horizon at the end of the ocean—but he had no confidence in that assumption. With a sliver of iron or steel, he might contrive a compass of sorts, but they had not packed anything useful in that regard for a hunting trip. And the bag in which the compass had been packed was lost overboard along with the pilot.
Looking out at the ocean, Paul was aware of eyes on him, as if someone meant to prevent him from repeating his next death spiral. He turned his head slightly to look at the Cessna and the trees again. There on a boulder sat Adrian Skinner, who had been hired as the party’s hunting guide. Skinner was in his early thirties, black-haired and pale-eyed, and generally as silent as the zephyr that filtered through the leaves of the trees. He had a lean physique, like that of a bicyclist or a climber, and of the men in the party Paul felt the least threatened by him. The eyes Paul had felt belonged to Skinner.
But it was a woman who touched Paul’s arm. He twitched, and spun around, and found Alexandra standing within arm’s reach. The heat from the sun was as nothing compared to that which now enveloped him, yet it was the heat from above which focused her attention.
“We should find shade,” she said, “like the others.”
“You’re afraid I’ll jump again.”
Despite misgivings, Paul let her lead him to a cluster of trees opposite the Cessna and well away from the others. For the moment, at least, she no longer wore an air of superiority that verged on haughtiness; she seemed almost human now. He thought perhaps she was beginning to realize that, a week after the crash, they might be stuck here a while, wherever here was, and that her only other option for companionship was the taciturn man sitting by the airplane. But it was an act, a façade; to her he would suffice until they were rescued.
He did not tell her that he doubted a rescue was forthcoming.
They climbed a gentle slope and finally seated themselves on the trunk of a tree that had fallen to land at a slight angle, she a little above him, as if it befit her station. She was wearing what he surmised was the last of her clean clothes, a new pair of black jeans and an aqua pullover that exposed her already-reddened arms and shoulders. He was aware that she was not wearing a bra, and chided himself for even noticing. For even looking to find out. He switched gears, and wondered why she had brought him to this place, isolating them from the others. He was hardly attired to her standards; his own black jeans had worn through at the left knee, and the fabric over the right thigh was thinning. He’d worn the green jersey for the past four days. And his sparse, youthful beard was beginning to show.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly.
“Only because of your limited options.”
She stiffened. “You needn’t be cruel.”
“We should be clear where we stand, you and I.”
“You’ve made yourself clear,” she groused. “But can we declare a truce?”
“A truce,” he said, without enthusiasm.
“An armistice, then.”
Her voice trembled, and Paul glanced at her. A sheen of moisture made her pale eyes glisten. The budding tears might be real, or they might be a ploy. Suddenly he found himself wanting to trust her, and to trust what he saw in her.
“An armistice,” he agreed, nodding. “Tell me why.”
Alexandra hesitated, and dropped her gaze to the patches of grass between her feet. Paul had no idea what might shame her, and wondered whether her superior demeanor might itself be a façade. In a trice she became to him a sympathetic creature—not weak, but burdened with normal human concerns exacerbated by their current plight. His right hand twitched; he wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her with a touch, but feared her interpretation of the gesture.
Her admission came out of nowhere. “Because I am alone, and I am frightened,” she whispered.
Belatedly Paul understood. Two decades younger than most of the others, she’d had no one to talk to or to confide in. By nature distant himself, he had not encouraged conversation. Of roughly the same age, of course they should have gravitated together. He realized that now.
Sunlight through the foliage dappled her short golden hair, and tears still made her eyes gleam like silver in the broken shadows. He looked directly at her and said, “Cougar.”
Startled, Alexandra blinked. Her lips formed a soundless question.
“You’re five months older,” he explained. “I won’t make twenty-one for another month.”
She barked a laugh. He thought it was good to hear her laugh, and better that he had made her do so.
“Tell me what frightens you,” he suggested.
A brief silence followed, while she composed herself. “It’s . . . little things,” she said presently. “I . . . the day after we crashed, you looked up at the sky and said the sun was wrong. It was almost orange, and seemed smaller. My father said it was just pollution, like the horizon at sunset at Los Angeles. But that wasn’t the sun, that was the clouds, and they were brownish orange. I’ve seen them.”
“Wait till you see New Jersey. Such a lovely vermilion sky.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to go there.” She brushed imaginary tresses from her cheek, and went on, “You also said this place was wrong, all wrong. I’ve been thinking about that. What did you mean by it?”
Paul did not respond
“Is this . . . are we on another world?” she asked.
“How could we be?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. Our smart phones don’t work. But the airplane’s radio still works, and Adrian says it’s not picking up any transmission at all, not even static fuzz.”
“Alexandra,” he said, and paused. “May I at least save a couple of syllables by calling you Sandy?” he asked. Or better yet, Alex, he thought, annoyed with himself, but it was already too late to change.
At first she frowned, almost glaring at him. “Just not in front of the others,” she relented.
“Sandy, you stayed awake during the flight across the Caribbean. Was the plane diverted? Did aliens beam us somewhere?”
“You’re making fun of me,” she pouted.
“Not at all.” He plucked a leaf from one of the trees and examined it without interest. “The truth is, I’ve had parallel questions. But no answers. Thus my comment about something all wrong.”
They heard a shout. John Talbot was returning from what he called a recce, a term from his few years in the military. A plumber by trade, he had improved his lot in life when he became Barrow’s hunting partner. He was carrying a fabric shopping bag from which protruded a long branch, and he was waving for attention. “I found berries,” he declared.
“Oh, good,” said Paul, sotto voce. “We can eat.”
Alexandra laughed, but added, “We’ll need to arrange a food supply if we have to stay here much longer.”
Paul stood up.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I want to look at the ocean again,” he told her.
Her eyes widened. “You’re not . . .”
“No, of course not.” He held out his hand, and she took it, pulling herself to her feet. “I want to check something.”
They strolled toward the precipice, and halted when they were able to see the rugged shoreline below. It stretched in either direction as far as they could see. Directly below, the waves worried at clusters of dark rocks that had fallen from the cliff in years and centuries past. Salty froth flew almost high enough to reach them.
“No wind,” said Paul. “Wind kept me from falling, but now there’s not even a breeze.”
She touched his hand, and took it. “But what does it mean?”
“All in all,” he said slowly, feeling his way, “it means we are marooned here by design.”
“Seriously. By whom? Why?”
Paul noted that she took his remark at face value, without the sarcasm he was accustomed to from his father. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I do know that I should have fallen onto the rocks.” He turned to her. “On the way, we flew west of the West Indies; that was the flight plan. You were looking out the window. Did you see a volcanic cloud? A plume forty thousand feet high?”
“N-no. What . . . ?”
“Because Pelee on Martinique had been erupting for the past four days.”
She shot him a worried look. “But what does it mean?” she asked again.
“It means we never made it to Guyana.” He glanced around. “I don’t know where this is. Somewhere within fuel range. Colombia, maybe.”
“Not another world?”
Paul felt helpless against the question. A misdirected flight? Another planet? Either way, he had no facts to tell him how, or why. All he had was a sun that looked odd, and a gravity that could be neutralized by wind. And a volcanic eruption that had not been spotted. He told her as much.
“A radio that works but doesn’t seem to reach anyone,” Alexandra added.
“We’ve been brought here for a reason,” said Paul. “I think I proved that harm will not befall us. It won’t be allowed.”
“It sounds like a Survivor episode.”
Paul chuckled. “That’s easy enough to disprove. You’re not wearing a bikini.”
“I didn’t even bring one.”
A voice called to them. His father’s voice. It boomed enough to frighten seagulls, Paul thought . . . and stared out at the ocean again. Where were the seabirds? He added that to the list of Odd.
“Coming,” he called, and led Alexandra back to the others.
The gathering—Paul could hardly call it a meeting—was run by his father, Marcus Barrow, CEfuckingO. It consisted of announcing a decision made without Paul’s input, or Alexandra’s, either.
“We are marooned and incommunicado,” began the elder Barrow, without preamble. “We don’t know where we are. All this means we may be here for quite a while. We have supplies for twelve days—the anticipated duration of this hunting expedition—and seven of those days have already passed. We have weapons for our protection. We have shelter. We have clothing. We have running water of a sort. We can gather dry wood and make fire.”
Barrow paused a moment to look at each person in turn. “What we do not have is a food supply. However, we have made a start in arranging one. Jack here has located a berry patch some distance away.”
“About half a mile,” Talbot threw in.
“He proposes to plant some canes around here,” Barrow went on, “and I agree.”
“That’s a bad idea,” said Alexandra. “Berry vines are very intrusive; they’ll take over. We’ll have to move our site before long.”
“Which shows what you know, baby girl,” snapped Talbot.
After a sharp glare at the girl, Barrow continued. “We’ll start a rudimentary garden. We’ll have to find things that are edible, of course. Other berries; nuts, perhaps some fruit. Game, if we can find it. Eggs—.”
“Do you see any birds?” Paul broke in. “Have you seen any here?”
“There are always birds, sonny,” said Talbot, his tone dismissing the question. “We’ll find them.”
Paul shook his head slowly, but made no reply. Barrow said, “We’ll all have to search for edibles. I want teams of two; in case one gets into trouble, he or she will have help.” His gaze took in both Paul and Alexandra. “That includes the two of you,” he added, directly to Paul. “It’s about time you started to pull your own weight.”
Alexandra’s hand on Paul’s arm soothed him. He decided to discount the notion of a façade; she was the girl she presented herself to be. He did not rise to his father’s jibe. Instead, he stood up, and Alexandra with him.
“We’ll go look for those edibles now,” he announced, and they headed back toward the forest. He ignored the elder Barrow’s snide remark about “only looking for things we can eat.”
When they were out of earshot, Alexandra asked, “How long have you put up with that?”
“All my life.”
After a moment, she said, “I hate my step-father.”
“I agree with you about the berries,” Paul told her. “But nobody’s listening.”
Trees forced them to make an erratic trail along the slope; they ducked, and pushed branches aside, and scanned the ground for anything that might provide some sort of nutrition. They found only sparse vegetation, leaves, and twigs. Here and there they lost their footing, and caught each other. Already sweat dampened their shirts. From time to time Alexandra rubbed her bare arms, and Paul noticed that she had acquired several minor scratches during their walk.
“I think there’s some aloe in the plane,” he said.
“I hadn’t planned on quite this much adventure,” she admitted. “Mom and I were supposed to go shopping in Georgetown while the men were out hunting. Your mom was going with us.” She smiled ruefully. “I suppose you were going with them.”
“Reluctantly,” he told her. “I’ve field-dressed a deer. I’ve no need to do anything like that again. And I haven’t noticed any deer trails here yet, or any other trails, for that matter. No burrowing animals, no animal signs, no feathers, nothing.”
“Let’s add that to your list,” she suggested.
“Already done.” A breeze tousled his hair. “Hey, feel that?”
Alexandra’s own short golden hair was already in disarray, and her loose aqua pullover was fluttering despite the extra weight of perspiration. “Where’d that come from?” she said.
Wind caught at Paul as he pulled Alexandra to the lee side of a broad tree trunk. “It actually reminds me of February in Chicago,” he said. “Except this is a lot warmer. Sandy . . . I don’t think we can go any further. This is about as strong as the wind that blew me back to shore.”
Worry wrinkled her brow. “I don’t understand.”
He pointed toward another tree in the direction from which they had come. “Let’s go over there,” he said, and curled an arm around her shoulders. “Hold onto me.”
“Watch that hand.”
He moved it higher on her shoulder. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. You can try again tonight, and see what happens.”
Again his face warmed, hotter than the sun, and remained so even as they took shelter behind the next tree. Here the wind lessened, gently soothing them, and she turned into the arm around her, and set her cheek against the top of his shoulder. He felt her breath heat the side of his neck.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“This armistice. This . . . peace. I needed it.”
His chin rubbed her forehead as he nodded. “Are you still frightened?”
“Yes. But it’s all right now.” He quickly put a little space between them, and she looked at him with a question in her pale eyes.
He felt his face flush. “Sorry.”
Alexandra merely smiled.
“Let’s follow a trail that runs along this wind,” he said, leading her away. “We should find out how far it extends.”
She trod carefully on loose dirt and past exposed roots. “Why?” she asked.
“Because I think the wind delineates our boundaries,” he answered slowly, speaking the notion even as it occurred to him. “We’re here by design.”
“Nobody else will believe that,” she said.
“I’m having some trouble wrapping my head around it,” she conceded. “But . . . well, but. We have some facts, even if we don’t know what they mean yet. And this wind is a fact as well. We don’t feel it in the open, which is exactly where we should feel it.” She paused briefly, the light breeze drying her skin. “Paul?”
He realized this was the first time she had called him by name. “Right here, Sandy.”
“Whatever this is . . . whatever is going on here, I’m taking your part.”
The declaration of faith lightened his heart. “Boom,” he said.
The barrier of impassable wind continued all the way back to the cliffs. For the sake of direction Paul assigned the barrier to the southern boundary, the cliffs to the west, and the savannah to the east and north. A glance at the encampment suggested that none of the others had bothered to conduct a search. Too busy making autocratic decisions, he decided.
“Back to the war,” Alexandra said quietly, as they approached.
Paul made a face as he spotted the berry cane and its dirt ball resting beside a hole already dug for it. Someone had cleared away the grass around it as well. Paul reckoned that, at a mere couple of meters from the Talbot’s tent, the patch would compel them to move within two years at most. He doubted the time would matter—given the party had been brought here by design, the resolution surely would come within a reasonable time. Even so, the decision regarding the location of the patch was, to be polite about it, ill-advised.
But there was something besides dirt trapped in the ball, and as Paul drew nearer, he realized what it was. He bent down and retrieved a small, irregular lump of coal that had gotten wedged in the root system. Something for his father’s Christmas stocking, he thought, straightening.
Almost immediately the elder Barrow snatched it from his hand, accompanied by a command to “Let me see that.”
“It’s coal,” Barrow announced, having gained black marks on his hands. “Bituminous, from the look of it. If there’s a seam, we can burn coal instead of wood. It burns longer, and provides more heat.”
“Isn’t it hot enough already?” asked Alexandra, with a glance back at the sun over the ocean.
Her step-father gave her a withering look. “For cooking, baby girl,” he said.
“For metal-working as well,” added Barrow. “Assuming we can find proper ores here.”
“We won’t be here that long,” Paul muttered.
“We have to plan as though we will,” countered the elder Barrow. “Speaking of burning, we ought to plan a burn of some of this grass. It will add carbon to the soil, as well as clear a spot for a garden.”
“You’ve no idea where the prevailing winds would blow the fire,” said Paul. “You can’t do this.”
Barrow stepped closer, glowering. His torso puffed out the camouflage hunting outfit he was wearing. “I can’t do this?” he snarled. “You forget who you’re talking to, Paul.”
For just a moment Paul started to square his shoulders and confront his father. But the moment passed, because Alexandra’s hand on his arm reminded him that he had other concerns. Without a word, he turned around and walked away, with her still holding onto his arm.
“Come back here,” shouted Barrow.
Paul did not even slow his departure. Presently he heard a sound of disgust, and knew that there would be no pursuit for his disobedience. He and Alexandra once again came to a stop where they could see the waves crashing on the rocks.
But there were no rocks below. The waves dashed against the cliff itself, barely ten feet below them.
Alexandra gasped, while Paul stood with his mouth agape. Madly he sought to reason out an explanation, but nothing occurred to him.
“What,” said Alexandra, “does this mean?”
He took refuge in observable facts. “This isn’t the Bay of Fundy,” he said, with subdued confidence. “We’re looking at an expanse of ocean, not a bay or strait where water can be channeled. The ocean level has risen about ten feet in the past . . . what, three hours? That can’t be a tidal effect.”
Worry and fear made Alexandra’s voice shake. “So in three more hours we’ll all be under water?” she asked.
Paul shrugged. “If this were a natural phenomenon, there would be signs of inundation here. Yet we see none of that.”
“So . . . something unnatural has changed?”
Now Paul sighed. “It would seem so.”
“I don’t know.” He glanced around. Already the rest of the hunting party was busy with camping chores. All except Adrian Skinner, the guide who was now seated on the airplane’s broken wing, and Skinner was watching him and Alexandra. “I’m beginning to think he knows, though,” said Paul.
“Shadows are getting longer,” said Alexandra, her voice barely audible over the waves breaking below. “It will be dark in another hour or so. Paul . . . I’m hungry.”
“Delmonico’s is in my tent.”
“Ribeye steak?” she said. “Baked potato with sour cream, broccoli with Béarnaise sauce, a merlot from Languedoc, and candlelight?”
“Would you settle for field rations, warm sodas, and a couple candles?”
“Boom,” she said.
I am now convinced that we have been brought to this place, but I still don’t know why. I now have an ally, and perhaps more: Alexandra Talbot
“Sinclair,” amended Alexandra, hovering near his shoulder. “My father’s name. I kept it. Alexandra Sinclair. Do you have to write that right now? I thought we—.”
“Please. I need to do this while I’m thinking about it fresh.”
Sinclair. We’re developing a list of Odd, of things we know but cannot yet explain. We seem to be surrounded by an impenetrable wind, cause unknown. The ocean level is rising inexplicably; something must have changed in the environment, but what? I think Adrian knows
“No,” said Alexandra. It was almost a yell. She began to walk around the center pole of the tent while she spoke her mind. “No, Paul, it’s not that our environment is changing, but that we are changing our environment! Not us, not you and I. But the others. You’ve called them on it. Putting a berry patch here instead of simply gathering the berries when they’re ripe. Burning the grass to clear a garden. Burning coal instead of wood. Planning to mine the coal, probably strip-mining, since the seam is near the surface.” She paused to regard him. Already he had stopped writing, and was standing up where she wouldn’t collide with him during her peripatetic thinking. “It’s us,” she said again. “We’re changing it. We’re the agents of environmental change.”
Paul scuffed at the canvas floor of the tent. “You’re saying that when we effect a change in the environment, the environment responds with a change of its own.” Abruptly he rolled his eyes. “Well, duh! Yes, that’s exactly what been happening, all over the planet. That’s the simple equation. But . . . but these are local changes—the ocean level, the winds—and they must be engineered somehow.”
Alexandra looked doubtful. “How would you engineer a ten-foot increase in the ocean level?”
“I don’t know. Nuke Antarctica? But we’ve seen the difference in ocean level, Sandy. So it’s happened. Or . . .”
She snapped her fingers. “Or it’s all an illusion,” she cried.
“I don’t think so,” he replied, shaking his head. “I think we really see these things—the ocean, the savannah, the forest. And certainly the trees are real, because they scratched you. But what part of what we see is real, and what part only looks real?”
A somber silence followed his question. Finally Alexandra said, “This is crazy.”
“A good night’s sleep should help to clear our heads.”
Her dove-gray eyes acquired a million-mile gaze. Her fingers toyed with the hem of her jersey, as if she were going to lift it. “What makes you think you’re going to get a good night’s sleep?” she asked.
“Captain Nemo,” said Paul, the next morning, while they shared single-serving boxes of cold cereal. “He was the covert benefactor for the refugees who landed on his mysterious island. We’re looking for Nemo.”
“Adrian Skinner?” asked Alexandra, between crunches.
He shook his head. “He’s the observer. I’m betting the radio does reach someone: whoever is behind this. They receive reports of what transpires here.”
Alexandra dismissed this with a desultory wave of her hand. “Conspiracy theory,” she snorted.
She spun back around. “What?”
“We are the victims of a conspiracy,” Paul went on. “To what end, I don’t know, but—.”
Shouts outside the tent interrupted him. Talbot’s voice; something that sounded like a slap; a scream. His father demanding a cessation of hostilities, although not in so many words. Paul grabbed Alexandra’s hand, and they rushed from the tent.
John Talbot was standing over his fallen wife, Alexandra’s mother, who had a large red mark on her left cheek. He was so angry that he was unable to speak, and could only make mouth noises. The elder Barrow was tugging on Talbot’s shoulder, trying to pull him away. Paul’s mother appeared to be in shock. For a change, Adrian Skinner was standing up; he looked as if he might be about to intervene.
Alexandra rushed to her mother and knelt down on the grass beside her, arms around her for support.
Paul drew up to his father. “What’s going on?”
“It’s about time you woke up,” said Talbot, to Alexandra. “You slut.”
The vulgarity galvanized Paul in a way he had never known before. He stepped forward and swung his fist at Talbot’s face. Though Talbot flinched, the blow landed on his cheek and knocked him back a step. Talbot caught his balance, and flashed a bloody grin as he raised his fists.
“Come get some, sonny,” he said.
“That’s enough, Jack,” Barrow said, in a tone that demanded compliance. To Paul, he added, with only the barest hint of mockery, “Well, you might make a man yet.”
Paul took a couple of deep breaths and let them out slowly. “What’s going on?” he asked again.
“Liza Talbot has been sneaking additional rations,” Barrow answered.
“I was hungry!” Liza screamed. Alexandra tried to hold her down, but she struggled back to her feet. “Nobody has done anything to get us out of here. It’s all pioneer stuff with you. Ration this, ration that. It’s . . . it’s . . . irrational!”
“The radio doesn’t reach anyone,” Barrow said calmly. “We have to—”
“I’m not sure that’s true,” said Paul, with barely a glance in Skinner’s direction. “I think we’ve received a response.”
“You’re crazy,” sneered Talbot.
“What are you talking about?” Barrow demanded. “The radio doesn’t get through. Our smart phones don’t work. Nobody knows we’re here.”
Paul jammed his hands into his pockets and trudged over to the berry vine that had been transplanted the day before. Not unexpectedly, its leaves appeared to be somewhat wilted. He caught a whiff of something sour and pungent, and after several seconds he identified it. “Bug spray?” he said, turning around to address his father.
“We don’t have any pesticide,” said Barrow, with a trace of sarcasm.
Paul sighed. “Have you seen any bugs here?” he asked.
“No, but that doesn’t mean they’re not around. We can’t take any chances with any crops we plant. And we’re getting ready for that burn, so we have a place to cultivate whatever we can find.”
Paul shook his head. “The prevailing winds blow out toward the grasslands. If you start a fire here, there’s no telling how far it will burn out of control.”
“We’ll control it,” Barrow said, his jaw clenched. His eyes flashed anger. “Same old Paul, trying to save the world.”
“Just this little part of it. Pop, have you looked at the ocean?”
“Yeah. It’s an ocean. So what?”
“Does it look a little different to you today?”
Barrow squinted toward the horizon. Waves were dashing above the cliffs, with the wind blowing salty spray inland. “Tide’s come in,” he said at last.
Paul held out an ushering arm. “Let’s go up and look at it,” he suggested.
“I don’t need to . . . oh, all right. I’ll humor you.”
They approached the cliff, with Alexandra trailing a step behind. None of the others followed, but Paul had the impression that Skinner was watching them closely out of the corner of his eye. They reached a point about three paces from the precipice. Briny froth pelted them as the waves crashed not more than five feet below.
Staring, Barrow swore softly.
Paul said, “It’s risen about fifteen feet since yesterday, Pop. That’s not tidal.”
“No,” his father agreed.
“Tell him about the wind,” said Alexandra.
“What about the wind?”
“The wind that blew me back onto the grass after I jumped,” Paul replied. “The wind Sa . . . Alexandra and I encountered in the forest. It’s a wall of wind, and it is impenetrable. It’s as good as an electric fence. We tried, but we couldn’t get through it.” He looked back at the rolling savannah. “I’d bet if you go far enough out there, you’d encounter the same winds.”
Paul paused for a moment, and took Alexandra’s hand. “So what has changed since yesterday morning, Pop?”
The elder Barrow frowned. Wrinkles high on his forehead disturbed the gleam of sunlight from his balding head. “I’m not sure I follow you,” he said. His gaze took in the pair of them. “Unless . . .?”
Paul held up their clasped hands. “I don’t mean this,” he said. “From the time we crashed here until yesterday, you were all plans and schemes and preparations for a stay of long duration. You were going to do this and that. But you hadn’t actually done anything. Yesterday, you did.”
He released Alexandra and began ticking his fingers as he made his points. “You dug up a berry vine and not only transplanted it, but you placed it in a spot not suited to this encampment. You sprayed it with bug spray without considering the effect that spray might have, on the plant and on the fruit it might bear. You’re going to start a fire you probably will not be able to control—”
“You don’t know—”
“Will you please just for once hear me out?”
For a moment the elder Barrow’s nostrils flared, as if he were on the verge of an explosion. With a visible effort he calmed himself, drinking in a deep breath and letting it out very slowly, while salty spray wafted all around them.
“You found a lump of coal and immediately planned to locate and exploit the seam,” Paul continued, as if there had been no interruption. “You’re going to use it in our campfire instead of harvesting the fallen trees in the area and using them for firewood.”
Barrow dismissed this with his tone. “You’re concerned about carbon emissions.”
“The point,” Paul said stiffly, “is that you’re not. The point is that you glommed onto the idea of burning coal as soon as the opportunity arose, yesterday, without at least exhausting the alternatives first. And the main point is that this occurred yesterday.”
“I don’t care for the way you’re talking to me, Paul,” said Barrow.
“I don’t care for the way you never even grant me the courtesy of a hearing, Pop.”
Alexandra inserted herself between them, her presence a silent plea for peace.
“Right,” said Paul. His lips puffed as he blew air out. “I’ll just finish. Half a minute. You can wait that long to resume raping the landscape.”
Alexandra’s hand on his arm stopped him.
Paul nodded. “But see, that’s what has changed, Pop. Since yesterday, you’ve either taken action or made specific, deliberate plans to take action on our environment here. Since yesterday, the ocean level has risen,” he glanced out at it, “a good fifteen feet. Now, I’m not prepared to explain why this has occurred; I know only that it has occurred, and that it has occurred in apparent conjunction with the various actions I listed.”
“Apparent,” repeated Barrow.
“I’m guessing that if you continue changing our environment,” said Paul, “the ocean level will continue to rise, flooding our campsite, flowing up that river over there and inundating the land.”
Barrow made a sound of disgust. “What you’re suggesting isn’t even possible.”
“What if it is?”
“Then tell me how,” demanded Barrow. “You’re suggesting that my decision to burn coal in our campfire has caused the ocean level to rise fifteen feet.” He looked sharply at Paul. “Do you understand how insane that sounds?”
“In fact, I do,” said Paul. “But humor me a little longer. Go back to the camp and tell the others that you’re not going to burn the grass or spray any more plants with Bugdead, and you’re going to harvest and burn firewood for cooking and for warmth.” He looked up at the sun for a moment. “Though why we need warmth here, I’ve no idea. Anyway, go tell them. It’s only noon, or close to it. Let’s see what happens to the ocean level by sundown. If it has gone way down, will you at least give my thoughts some consideration?”
Barrow turned away and headed back toward the camp.
“Pop?” called Paul.
But the elder Barrow waved him off, and continued onward.
“What are you thinking?” asked Alexandra, after Barrow was out of earshot.
“It’s a set-up,” Paul answered. “I don’t know how, and I’m not completely sure why, but someone is trying to teach us something. More specifically, to teach my dad something.” He looked out at the ocean again. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. And even that doesn’t make sense.”
“But you got him to listen to you,” Alexandra pointed out. “That’s something.”
Paul turned and glared at the camp, where his father was talking in a low tone to the others. “He’s probably telling them to go out and bring back all the coal they can find.”
Hand in hand again, they began walking toward presumed north and the river. Paul drew his concerns away from the environment to give some attention to what had developed between himself and Alexandra. Something of an outcast in the camp because of his tender age and his father’s general dismissal of him as a sentient being, he was grateful that Alexandra, Sandy, was taking his part whenever it seemed necessary. They’d formed a bond under the duress of isolation, and the romantic in him wondered how long that bond would last after they returned to civilization.
“You’re awfully quiet,” said Alexandra, as they reached the crest of a low hill that marked the halfway point to the river. She squeezed his hand. “But you’re not tense,” she went on. “So you’re not thinking about your dad and what he might do. Therefore, it’s either the problem of why we’re all here, or . . . or it’s about us. You and me. I’d say a penny for your thoughts, but inflation is rough these days. How about two dollars and fifty-three cents?”
Paul smiled in spite of his questions.
“That’s better,” she said.
“This is sudden and unexpected,” he blurted, unable to stop himself.
“Maybe for you.”
He stopped, and turned to her. “What does that mean?”
“I’m not as impulsive as it seems,” she admitted. “Since this trip began, I kind of knew you and I would . . . okay, maybe not last night in your tent, but I thought at least we would get better acquainted. I mean, we’ve known each other for years. But you appeared to be more interested in your diary.”
“It’s therapeutic,” he told her, as they resumed their journey toward the river. “And cathartic.”
“I shouldn’t wonder.”
“It helps me keep myself together whenever I feel like I’m coming apart.”
“You don’t want to follow in your dad’s footsteps?”
“God, no. I want . . . I want to finish up my degree this semester and . . . and . . .”
“Save the world?” she asked.
He shook his head. “That’s not a task for one person,” he said. “No, I just want to do some good, somewhere.”
“Greenpeace? Quietearth? Sierra Club?”
They reached the final downward slope before the river, and swished through the sun-baked grass. “Ah, skinny-dipping,” she said.
The notion startled him. “What? No!” He felt his face warm. “I mean, no, that’s not why I wanted to come here.”
“Besides, they might see us. No, I wanted to find out how far we could go in this direction.”
“About as far as we went last night in the tent,” she said smugly. “If we stay below the crest of that last hillock. Paul?”
“Just kiss me, and I’ll shut up. I know you’ve got a lot to think about. But you don’t have to worry about you and me, about us.” She clutched at his hand again for emphasis. “Understand?”
“One more thing,” she said. “I love the way you are so gentle with me. But every once in a while I’d like you to keep in mind that I’m not made of spun glass. I won’t break.”
“Um,” he said. “I, ah . . . to borrow from double-o seven, you want to be taken, not interred.”
She groaned, then glared at him. “That was an unspeakable pun. You are so going to pay for it. Now, shut me up.”
He kissed her.
“You can do better than that,” she pouted.
He could, and he did.
The river purled past them, on its way to the ocean. Though the dusty yellow-orange sun had sunk halfway down to the horizon, it cast enough heat on Paul and Alexandra to keep them perspiring well after they had finished causing themselves to sweat. Sprawled now on the makeshift bed of their clothing, they each fell into their own reveries. Paul’s, to his chagrin, focused not on the young woman beside him, but on their current plight. He felt as if there were some essential ingredient that continued to elude him; that if he could identify it, everything here would suddenly make sense.
Someone, Paul was certain, had managed to control a little portion of the environment. Or had established the semblance of control. The hunting group had intruded—or had been made to intrude—into this portion, and to affect or plan to affect that control. Their actions were akin to jamming a stick through the spokes of a moving bicycle.
“Gyroscope,” Paul said suddenly, and sat bolt upright, startling Alexandra. Her dove-gray eyes peered up at him, squinting in the sunlight.
“The environment here is like a gyroscope,” he expanded. “We’ve been sticking things in the spokes. It’s off-kilter.”
“The environment anywhere,” Alexandra put in. As unself-conscious as Paul, she sat up and drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs. “I think I see what you mean,” she went on. “In the past two days we’ve made adjustments to our surroundings, all of them without giving any thought to the effects those adjustments might have.”
Paul nodded. “There’s nothing inherently wrong in planting a berry vine bramble for cultivation and harvesting,” he said, more thinking out loud than speaking to her. “But we planted ours without planning, without asking ourselves what it would do to our surroundings. We sprayed it with a quasi-insecticide without asking what it would do to the ground, to ourselves, and to our digestive systems. We’re going to burn the grasslands to make room for crops. Crops which in fact we don’t even have seeds for. We’re going to burn coal unnecessarily. Each thoughtless act upsets the balance of the gyroscope. Remember those toys we used to have as kids?”
“Um . . . no. But I know what one looks like,” she added quickly.
“You could start them up by pulling on a string, like on a top, and stand them on the point of a pencil,” said Paul. “No matter how you tilted the pencil, the gyroscope remained vertical. As long as it was spinning, anyway. A bicycle wheel is just another gyroscope, but on its edge. As long as you keep pedaling, the bicycle remains upright.” He laughed, and said, “And so does the rider. But poke a stick through the wheel, and off you go. We’ve been doing that to the environment here.”
Alexandra shook her head. “But that doesn’t explain the rise in ocean level,” she objected. “I mean, yeah, on a large scale, the things we do can affect it. They are affecting it.”
“Pop’s corporation has been quietly buying up land five to ten miles from the coastlines for years now,” he said. “New waterfront properties. They’ll be worth a lot more.”
“No, that’s profit. I don’t really blame him for that. It’s a good financial move. But his corporation has also been doing things to the environment to cause those coastlines to change. In ignorance, I’m sure; Pop is neither malevolent nor malicious. Thing is, I doubt he’d stop even if he grasped the principle of environmental cause and effect.”
“But the rise in ocean level here,” Alexandra persisted. “How does that fit in?”
“That,” said Paul, “is a very good question. Maybe it hasn’t actually risen.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m not sure I do, either. I think it has to do with the mechanism by which they control this little portion of the environment.”
As if on cue, they heard Skinner’s voice. It sounded close by, as if he were standing on the other side of the hill.
“Don’t worry, I won’t look,” Skinner called. “But I would ask you two to get dressed now, please.”
* * *
“I can’t wait to read this diary entry,” said Alexandra, as she climbed back into her jeans.
Paul chuckled and fastened his belt. Her calling it a diary instead of a journal endeared her to him. She “got” him in ways no one else had done. But when they reached civilization again, what then? His face sobered as he looked at her. Insignificant for the moment were the personal problems he faced with his father, or their present isolation, even the strange man waiting on the other side of the hill to hear from them again.
Yet what did he really know about her? Like himself, she was in her last semester, he at Michigan, she at Wisconsin. He had been compelled to major in Business Administration by his father, but he had added a second major in Environmental Studies on his own, and in opposition to him. As far as he could recollect, Geology was her major, glacial geology her specialty. She had a second major, but it eluded his memory. Still, where did that leave them? He, avoiding what his father declared as his duty, by going off instead on a Greenpeace mission to save the blue whales? She, at a post in Antarctica, studying glacial progression and calving?
“I thought I had put a smile on your face,” said Alexandra.
“Post-coital lassitude,” he told her.
“My, aren’t we clinical.”
Paul laughed, despite his mood.
“I told you not to worry about you and me,” she reminded him. “We can work this out.” She paused and added, flashing a grin, “Except on game day.”
“You’re a Wolverine, I’m a Badger.”
“Oh. Right.” He gazed toward the crest of the hill and said, “We’d better see what he wants.”
She tugged at his arm to stop him from calling out to Skinner. “What do you want?” she asked.
“You,” said Paul, without hesitation.
“Boom,” said Alexandra.
* * *
They called out to Skinner that they were now presentable. The taciturn man quickly appeared on the crest of the hill and strode down to them. Seen up close, his long, ruddy face was darkened by a week’s worth of stubble. But there was a touch of mirth in his pale eyes as he shook hands with Paul, then with Alexandra.
“We should sit down,” Skinner suggested. “This may take a while.”
The three of them moved to the riverbank and made themselves as comfortable as possible on the rough grass. Paul was feeling a touch of embarrassment. How long had Skinner been waiting on the other side of the hill? What had he . . . heard? A glance at Alexandra told him she was asking herself the same questions.
“About two hours,” said Skinner. “I heard what I needed to hear.”
Paul started. Alexandra said, “Please don’t tell me you’re telepathic.”
Skinner smiled. Paul thought it was the first time he had seen the man smile.
“Hardly,” said Skinner. “But I’d be astonished if you both didn’t have the same unspoken question under the circumstances.” He leaned back on the grass, arms braced behind him. “You’ve almost put it all together, Paul,” he went on, adding with another smile, this one directed at Alexandra, “with some very good insights from you. I particularly enjoyed the gyroscope analogy. Most apt. What you two are seeing—some of what you’re seeing—is holographic. You’ve already located much of the boundary. The remainder runs just on the other side of the river, which is real. Beyond that is actually a forest, much like the one next to your camp. The wind you feel is forced air circulating around the perimeter. As you’ve surmised, it is virtually impenetrable. We didn’t want any of you to wander off . . . or to throw yourselves off the cliff. The sun’s color is affected by the projection. By the way, on a lighter note, those berries tend to give you what we call the trots, as Mr. Talbot should be finding out fairly soon.”
Alexandra laughed. Paul asked, “How are you generating the field?”
“It cost a bit of money, of course,” Skinner answered readily. “We shut it off for a few hours each day in the early morning. The holographic generator is inside the plane, which is why I generally discouraged anyone from going in there. Especially you two.”
Alexandra’s pale brow wrinkled. “Why us?”
“Because we were the targets of this exercise,” Paul said suddenly, having just made a connection. “Not my dad, or yours.”
Paul looked to Skinner, who said, “You can lead a corporate executive to the truth, but you cannot force him to accept it. A nice little truism. ‘Nice’ in its original meaning, that is to say. To your father, Quietearth is just another radical fringe organization bent on pelting various upper management individuals with spoiled cabbage and tomatoes.” He laughed lightly and went on, “Not that we haven’t done that, but there are those of us who realize that to elicit a lasting and useful response, we have to have both demonstrative proof and a rational program. You can’t just shut down refineries, or EMP every vehicle that has electronic ignition—which is just about all of them these days—or stop mining coal. Nor should you want to; there is a happy medium that can be reached. There are those of us at Quietearth who are working on relevant proposals based on our independent studies. In the meantime, someone needs to . . . let’s say ‘cultivate sensibility’ in the minds of those who have the power to effect change quickly enough to do some good, yet slowly enough to cause no more than the maximum acceptable disruption. Obviously, that’s a fine line to walk.”
“You said ‘someone,’” said Alexandra. “Not Quietearth, then?”
Skinner turned to Paul. “Would your father give us a hearing?” he asked.
“He wouldn’t want you in the same zip code,” replied Paul.
“But he might give Paul a hearing,” Alexandra cried suddenly. Her face glowed with her eureka moment. “That’s what this is all about.”
“Especially,” added Skinner, “if you have something simple and demonstrable to show him.”
“Like the rise in ocean level,” said Paul.
“And the fall of it,” Skinner put in. “Before I came out here, I listened. He wasn’t happy. But he told the others they were going to hold off on the burn and use fallen trees for firewood. He even got his wife to wash off the leaves of the berry vine, not that that will make the berries more edible. That’s not the point.”
“So the ocean level is,” began Paul.
“Part of the illusion,” said Skinner. “Oh, there is an ocean there. You felt the spray. But it’s about twenty feet below the cliff. And the projection will show that presently.”
“How,” said Alexandra. She licked her lips and tried again. “How did you manage all this? I mean, holograms and . . . illusions and who knows . . . ?”
A faint smile toyed with the corners of Skinner’s mouth. “We had a lot of help from some folks in Marin County,” he admitted. “Of course, it helps that we’re now a tax-deductible organization.”
“Where exactly are we?” Paul asked.
“Near Punta Herrera, on the Yucatan coast. No, you would not have spotted the volcano smoke.”
“Omigod,” cried Alexandra. Her eyes widened in horror as she regarded Skinner. “You got the pilot killed just to set this up. You’re a—”
Skinner quickly shook his head. “We’ve taken great pains to keep all of you safe,” he told her. “As Paul here learned first-hand. No, Roberto Dario is very much alive. He’s not just a pilot, he’s a stunt pilot, and a very good one. Works for indie films, mostly. He knows how to crash. You’ll see him again when we reach our support camp, about half a kilometer beyond the wind barrier.” He looked from Paul to Alexandra and back again. “Well, someone has to fly you out of here.”
“An illusion,” said Barrow.
He and Paul were standing near the precipice that overlooked the ocean, with the sun about to set. Twenty feet below them, waves continued their slow erosion of the rocks.
A lesson, corrected Paul, thinking to himself. It would not do to rub his father’s nose too hard in the mess he had made. Little steps, Adrian Skinner had said. We’re in a hurry, but we have time if we keep putting one foot in front of the other. This was a first step. One of many.
“A consequence, Pop,” Paul said aloud. “A connection.”
Barrow slowly nodded. “I’m beginning to grasp that. But you’re suggesting that I close down CommEarth. That we close down the corporations—”
“. . . and the manufacturing—”
“. . . and millions of people will lose their livelihood—”
“No, Pop, that’s not—”
Barrow turned to him and said softly, “Would you please just hear me out?”
Paul grinned. “Of course, Pop,” he relented.
“What you’re suggesting is a radical change that will destroy the country and society as we know it. Don’t you like the life you have? Don’t you appreciate your education, your car . . . your ribeye steaks?”
“I love ribeyes, Pop. I’m just not willing to use the Earth as a dump for animal waste, to say nothing of adding methane to the atmosphere, the smell of meat-processing plants located too close to the cities, the . . . I don’t want to go on and on.”
He gazed out at the real ocean.
Moments later, Barrow cleared his throat. “You seem to have cemented a relationship with Alexandra,” he said in the tone of a friendly observation.
Paul decided to be blunt. “If you’re referring to last night and this afternoon,” he responded, “that’s really a small part of it. I keep a diary; you call it a journal. She calls it a diary. Not because it’s a diary or a journal, but because it’s what I call it. She accepts my frame of reference. She’s compatible in ways I cannot even begin to express to you. Yes, there are differences. Education, university, upbringing. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be raised by someone who is not your parent and who regards you as being in the way as she has been raised. It makes me appreciate you and Mom together all these years. But again, that’s a little thing. Life is really a series of little things. Big things only obscure that.
“And what we do to the environment is a series of little things. A plastic milk carton here, a cigarette butt out the window there. Burning sulfurous coal because it’s less expensive than anthracite. Manufacturing incrementally improved smartphones—like the ones your CommEarth manufactures in China.”
“What’s wrong with—?”
“The primary difference between the Polara 6 and the Polara 5 is that the Six accommodates ten—count them, ten—more apps than the Five. The Five accommodated sixteen more than the Four, which was geared to five hundred apps, or hundreds more than most people can keep track of. All three models came out in the past eighteen months. What a waste!”
“It makes money for us,” Barrow protested.
“Yeah. Pop, it’s not one thing and it’s not just CommEarth. It’s Red-Bands replacing Blue-Rays replacing DVDs replacing VHS—”
Barrow shook his head. “Technological development, that’s all.”
“Pop,” sighed Paul, “we’ve had Red-Band technology since VHS came out. We just held it back to make more incremental money. But again, that’s just one symptom. It’s a lot of little things.” He sighed again. “To fix it, we have to take one step here and one step there, so their effects accumulate like a downhill snowball. No, we can’t shut things down. Yes, the end result might well be the radical change that you fear so much. But that’s a couple centuries or more into the future. It’s a big change, but over time people will adapt. If we do things right, the effects of most incremental changes will be minimal. You won’t realize you’ve traveled until you arrive at your destination.”
His father, uncharacteristically, did not respond.
Maybe he’s mulling it over, Paul thought. It’s a beginning. Now to get him involved . . .
“Pop, you’re worth six billion dollars. People will listen to you.”
Barrow stared at him. “Seven billion, thank you.”
“I know.” Paul faked a downcast look. “I was kind of hoping for an allowance.”
Incredibly, Paul felt his father’s arm slip around his shoulders. They began walking slowly back to the encampment. “I was thinking more along the lines of a wedding gift, if it comes to that. Or perhaps if you had it now, it might lead to that. What would you do with it?”
Paul shrugged. “Set up a trust fund to disperse it where it’s needed.”
“Always the sensible one. You are going back to the university, right?”
“I have to keep up with Sandy . . . I mean Alexandra.”
Barrow stopped, and Paul with him.
“As for people listening to me,” Barrow said. “I do know two or three senators who are up for re-election next year. And . . . other people.”
Barrow nodded. “I won’t say I’ll agree with everything you think, Paul. But it might be useful if you formed some sort of consultancy, to advise me on where we should and should not develop. I might not take the advice; in fact, it’s doubtful that I will. But . . .”
“But it’s a little step,” said Paul. “And CommEarth would be leading the way.”
Barrow grinned. “That thought had occurred to me.”
Alexandra spotted their return, and walked out to meet them. She disengaged Paul from his father, and led him aside.
“Did you two have a nice talk?” she asked.
“He thinks I should start an environmental consultancy for corporations,” Paul answered. “I think I agree.”
Her eyes brightened. “Want some really really long-term help?”
“Boom,” said Paul.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tyee Campbell is a retired U.S. Army translator (Russian, Spanish, and Thai) who tells stories when he’s not taking care of two husky mixes, both handfuls, and a kitchen garden and collections of oddments. He also writes the Bombay Sapphire superheroine series for Pro Se Press. His latest novel, ‘Avatar,’ is available on Amazon.
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