On the rocky mossy shores of Antarctica, beyond the endless wisps of grass hovered over by faded red string that cut the landscape up into square meter boxes, the city of McMurdo still stands. It is a vast shantytown, starkly unassuming compared to the glittering carbon spires of St. Petersburg, but it is a clean shantytown. And in the EM spectrum, around the ten centimetre wavelength, the glittering wealth of humanity’s last hope runs in rivulets, through re-purposed trailers and TEUs, carrying the songs of a Noah’s Ark of rescued microchips. And before the eyes of every denizen streak a rainbow of overlays, the last frail library index. Kept alive by the scant beating hearts of a couple dozen thousand, the internet is cold with the chill of a thinning winter’s air.
The paint fades. The fusion reactor at the city’s center sputters out and the polymer baths strain to hold the charge another two days until it can be restarted. Data-death has come again, and we must decide what to triage. Our silent ward makes the choice no easier; its ecology remains verdant, supplying our best weapons against the Bloc and the acid and the Balleny Fault and and and. But it remains turned inward to worlds we cannot glimpse, almost as unknowable to us as we are to it. The most beautiful child, lost to us while we still cradle it in our hands, in troubled compassionate awe. And silently we vote on whether to kill it this month or lose more unknowable history to the blackout, to keep it alive for ethics’ sake or in hope that this decade something will emerge.
We vote to buy another lottery ticket with the petabytes of our ancestors lives and dreams. To duck the harshness in the air all around us. Papers flicker and expand outward in jeweled strings of what those ancestors would have called game theory, sociology, neuroscience, and philosophy of ethics–our own haggard juvenile cry against our inevitable near-consensus. We trade links, shuffling obligatory commentary around the conceptual processing networks, sliding dependencies into place like glittering emeralds. Ritual play to stretch muscles laterally before we return to fitting another brilliant seventeen-year-old’s work on silicates in the North American desert into appropriate reclamation theories. Decay and rust is scraped away into jars for electrolysis as yet more chips go dead. The meagre replacement rate is analysed from all angles. And then again.
Children play with kites made from filaments once hoped to replace rapidly crumbling solar panels. Kerguelen is under siege. We believe our launch site near the Tropic of Cancer, hidden in the patterns between rot storms only we can see, will be exposed if we mobilize. And so they die. The grass on our slopes goes white and sun-exposure is forbidden. Old women taste apricots for the first time. A spasm of further ecological collapse in South America sends nitrogen washing up into the Ross Delta marshlands. Three refugees; the first in two years. A spring revolution deauthenticates the spokescouncil and a massive collaborative social engineering is undertaken to clean up the burgeoning proliferation of exclusive darknets. Our ward moves suddenly, like the cracking of glaciers of old, and then is silent. A loner cadre of young lover-collaborators discover Russian advances through the remains of shale processing plants in Marie Byrd and die together fighting them off.
We must vote on whether to send a last stockpile of hydrogen to the launcher or supply the reactor, our capacity to process water finally traded away by the design optimism of a much earlier generation of McMurdo. We vote to send it to the launcher. Without Kerguelen we are forced to listen blind and near-mute as the automated lander’s ion engines — made in a clean room two centuries prior and sailed out of Florida on a badly patched fiberglass laser sailboat by our great great grandmothers — choke as it nears 3554 Amun. The pings of spectroscopy turned to the scratchy music of undying automated radio stations to avoid our enemies. The surface of the asteroid we meant to capture and mine is boiling. We have no idea why. We have eleven hours to decide before we must land Earth’s last mission.
Words: William Gillis
Pictures: August Allen