by Naomi Foyle, UK
Story so far: 82 years after climate catastrophe and global nuclear war have devasted the planet, human civilisation is slowly regenerating. Growing up in the apparent eco-idyll of Is-Land, Astra Ordott only wants to defend her Gaian homeland from the ‘Non-Landers’ massed on its borders. But when Astra was seven, her dissident Shelter mother, Hokma Blesser, convinced her not to have the Security Shot – a dose of serum designed by Is-Land’s Ministry of Border Defence (IMBOD) to create a generation of docile, ultra-loyal and super-fit soldiers. Now a young teen, Astra is forced to hide her true self from her family and the community she still believes in and yearns to serve.
‘So.’ Klor waggled his famous eyebrows. The grey tufts were singed turquoise and gold from the light of the Fountain and his face, like everyone’s, was gleaming with mist and sweat. ‘Who’s ready for a story?’
Astra ought, she knew, to be gazing with rapt attention at her Shelter father, but from her place in the circle she stole a glance at the turf-roofed cave. A faint wind was hushing through the clearing’s curve of pine trees, and over Klor’s bony shoulders long shadows danced up the mud walls of Birth House. The lights in the water were as bright as tropical feathers and everyone was smiling, but the entrance to the dark womb-chamber was black and gaping open so the Ancestors could hear the story too. There was a place for the Ancestors in the circle, too, flanked by Klor on one side and on the other, her bottom firmly planted on the Teller’s Trunk, Nimma.
We are. We are. We are. The Security Generation shouted and bounced, consensus-speak waggling their hands in the air. Astra shifted uncomfortably. Even with the Fountain, it was a hot night. The Sec Gen section was three- or four-deep in places and she was squashed between Hokma’s hipbelt and a squirmy seven-year-old called Sprig. Behind her another seven-year-old, Tulsi, was sitting in her Shelter father’s lap and butting her feet into Astra’s back – kicking, actually. She reached behind and firmly pushed Tulsi’s sandals away.
‘Waaaah,’ Tulsi protested. She and Sprig had only just had their Security shots, so they weren’t placid yet.
‘Shhh.’ Her father bundled the girl closer to him.
Hokma turned her head and frowned. ‘Astra,’ she warned.
‘Sor-ree.’ Astra stuck the tip of her dreadlock in her mouth and sucked. Nimma hated her doing that, but Nimma wasn’t looking.
‘Don’t do that either.’ Hokma reached up and tugged the dread back into place behind Astra’s ear. Frigging Gaia. Hokma was pushing it tonight. Astra scowled but kept quiet. She was already getting away with selfish behaviour, she knew, plonking herself down near the cool Fountain mist when the older Sec Gens should be sitting behind the little ones. She was on the edge of the group, though, like always, and for once Hokma hadn’t argued with her. She probably thought Astra wanted a good view of Nimma.
Me. I am. Hear hear. Hear Her. From around the Circle adults and non-Sec Gen Or-kids chipped in with shouts and cheers. People’s faces swam like glinting fish in the supernatural Fountain light. Behind them, the pine trees bristled up into the night like a forest palisade.
‘Good. Very good. Now, remember . . . Oh . . . Wait a minute.’ Klor pulled a perplexed face and scratched his head. ‘What must we all remember?’ Nimma, looking watery in a silver faux grass hipskirt and a mother-of-pearl necklace, put her hand to her ear and looked expectantly round the Circle.
Astra winced. Her Shelter mother was tonight’s frigging Teller. Why did she have to act like an overdressed kindergarten teacher? She’d be wagging her finger and telling people off next. Astra pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her shins. As the eldest Shelter daughter of this control-freak Teller she suddenly felt horribly exposed.
‘Don’t look at the Kezcams!’ All around the Circle, a chorus of voices harmonised like a morning chant-hymn before pealing into laughter. Beside Astra, the Sec Gens clapped and wriggled. Astra, as usual, was the only person not positively frothing with delight. Maybe she should have sat at the back, where she wouldn’t have to wrench her face into a different expression to match each new line in the story. Because the story was going to be dull, that was guaranteed. Nimma wasn’t a proper Teller, for Gaia’s sake. She’d been fretting about tonight for weeks, spending hours in her room practising, and not listening properly when people asked her questions. You’d think, considering how self-absorbed she’d been, she could have just ignored Astra: but no, she’d been nagging her about absolutely everything until it was all Astra could do not to scream, ‘Leave me alone’.
To top it all off, when Astra had complained to Hokma, Hokma had nearly frigging exploded: ‘You can’t afford to lose your temper!’ she’d yelled, so loud she’d practically blown a hole in the roof of Wise House. ‘Do you want Nimma to find out you’re not Sec Gen? You’ve nearly finished Foundation School now, Astra. You have to grow up!’
Yeah, well, that was easy for a grown-up to say. Grown-ups got to lose their frigging tempers whenever they frigging well wanted to. And besides, Astra didn’t frigging want to grow up, thank you very much. Not if it meant behaving like Nimma, with her pettifogging rules, or Hokma with her grunts and silences and complete lack of interest in the world beyond Wise House. The problem with her Shared Shelter mothers, she had realised lately, was that apart from the Owleons and language lessons, Hokma didn’t care a dried fig about Astra’s life, and Nimma cared way too much.
‘The Circle is ready to roll!’ Klor hollered over to Ahn. Astra glowered over the Fountain to the real reason she’d bagged a place in the front. Sitting alone on a bench, his face hidden by his battered straw trilby, oblivious as always to the micro-dramas playing out at his feet, Ahn tapped at the notebook Tablette resting on his knees. Craning her neck, Astra peered through the fine Fountain spray, straining to catch a glimpse of the Kezcams lined up on the bench.
The Kezcams, three small helium-filled biotech-balls with thin shells of black steel and retractable wings kestrel-Coded to hover noiselessly in the air, were the nicest bit of IMBOD kit to arrive in Or since bendable Tablette screens – but, extremely unfairly, no one except Ahn was allowed to touch them. Astra was barely allowed to look at them. As if to torment her, Ahn walked around Or with the Kezcams bunched in a string bag on his hydrobelt, each hidden in a heavy enamelled case that protected the delicately jointed wings and weighed the sphere down. She had finally spied him practising his operating technique out on the lawn yesterday, but as she’d stood mesmerised, watching the Kezcams dart and hover like hummingbird moths over the gladioli, Nimma had come and chased her away, saying she mustn’t spoil his concentration. And at rehearsal today, Klor had told them all that if a Kezcam hovered in front of them, they were to ignore it. Later Ahn would edit the footage into a film that would be shown weekly at the Boundary Congregation Site on the way to Sippur. Is-Landers and visitors from all over the world would see the film so it was important to give him lots of good shots to choose from.
‘Don’t worry, folks, you won’t even notice them. Just pretend they aren’t there.’
Moving her eyes only, Astra watched Ahn release the three Kezcams from their cases. One by one, they drifted up into the air, unfolding their transparent wings. Brushing his Tablette screen with his fingers, Ahn directed their ascent. The Kezcams were barely visible as they entered the Fountain light, their wings grey blurs, their shiny surfaces reflecting the changing colours of the spray. They soared to a height of three metres, then as Ahn expertly choreographed their movements, one began a slow circle overhead and the others descended into the Fountain pit to take up their starting positions: one facing Nimma and Klor in front of the Ancestors’ Place and one suspended in front of the Sec Gens.
Swipe. Swoop. Swap. Controlling the Kezcams, especially three at once, was an art, a dance involving your whole body; Astra could see that. But it wasn’t like flying an Owleon. It wasn’t like knowing that one of Gaia’s fiercest creatures would come arcing back to you through the air at your call and clutch your wrist as if it owned you.
‘Welcome all, to the first Or Story Night of Summer 82 re.’ Klor’s voice tugged Astra back into the Circle. The Kezcam in front of her Shelter father was barely visible in the Fountain-glare, but its lens could rotate 360 degrees and Ahn would see if Astra was trying to spot it. She did her very best to stare resolutely past it. ‘Our Teller tonight is Nimma,’ Klor continued. ‘What Story shall we ask her to Tell?’
Tonight’s Asker was Congruence; an older girl, not a Sec Gen, currently having a difficult time because her Gaia Play Mate had forsaken her for another girl. You would never guess it, though, from her composure. Congruence was sitting in full lotus, her hands in chin mudra on her knees, her long black hair falling straight to her waist, her skin gleaming like polished oak
‘I want to hear Kali’s story,’ Congruence said, her voice as soft and clear as a bamboo wind chime, as a Kezcam hovered above her. ‘I want Nimma, Birth-Code daughter of Elpis, to tell it.’
‘Nimma?’ Klor turned to the Teller. ‘Do you hear the Asker?’
All heads turned to Nimma. Just for a moment Astra found herself touched by the spell of the Asking.
‘Thank you, Asker,’ Nimma replied in the time-honoured manner – except that her voice had a hairline crack in it. She paused and swallowed before continuing, her voice fuller now, ‘With Gaia’s help – and another flame in the Fountain – I’ll tell the tale.’
Klor took the remote control from his hydrobelt and pointed it at the Fountain. Tulsi, Sprig and the other younger Sec Gens gasped as a stream of fiery sparks flew up through the mist. The story was starting now and there was nothing Astra could do except listen and hope Nimma wouldn’t make too big a hash of it. She stared into the heart of the lightshow. The orange flames were flowing in the spray like the silky sleeves of summer dresses, and the churning surface of the Fountain pool glowed like jagged jewels.
‘This is a story from the Dark Time,’ Nimma began. Her voice was stronger now, and Astra had to admit that it carried well across the Fountain. ‘Many stories from that time have been lost, for even golden eagles may not survive a cyclone, but this one is still with us because its first Teller, Kali, survived that terrible period. It was a painful story for Kali to tell, but because so many people wanted to hear it, she mastered her fear and grief and became a powerful Teller. Kali’s Telling helped create Is-Land: that is how powerful it was. But before she was a Teller, Kali suffered – not as a child, no: she had a very happy childhood because her parents were Gaians and she grew up in a beautiful community called Beltane in the mountains of Yr Widdfa, which, despite a fierce independent spirit, was governed by the kingdom of Yukay. She and the other Gaian visionaries of Beltane lived in yurts and tipis and Earthships. The people in yurts and tipis burned wood for heat, and everyone used wind turbines and photovoltaic cells to power their Tablettes and washing machines. It was cold in Yr Widdfa, so in the winter Kali wore clothes outside, but inside the Earthships and on the hot days of summer she and her family lived sky-clad and free, just like us. But though they were naked, they were not vulnerable. As the Great Collapse accelerated, Beltane constructed an Earthcastle with a moat and ramparts. For Beltane Gaians were Pioneers. They were among the first Gaian communities to realise that if we truly want to defend our Mother, we have to defend ourselves.’
Nimma’s voice rang out deep as a bronze bell as she stated this central truth, and the adults around the Fountain chimed their agreement: Hear Her. Hear Her. Gaia for ever. Everyone was eager for the story now, Astra could tell. No one was acting for the Kezcams. She risked another glance at Ahn.
Hokma elbowed her in the shoulder. Look at Nimma, the sharp nudge said.
‘Gaians are not selfish, no,’ Nimma declaimed to another murmur of agreement. ‘During the Great Collapse, Beltane, like all Gaian communities, offered to share their knowledge and skills – their clean-energy technology, their collective decision-making processes – with the rest of the world, but this offer was rejected. Instead, the Yukay government refused Beltane permission to build more self-sufficient dwellings, and the local media mocked them as backward simpletons. At best, people saw Gaians as cranks, living in a precious little world of our own, sewing our own clothes, home-schooling our children, milking goats. Most people didn’t understand the urgent necessity of our way of life. Most people were racing headlong into the Dark Time, their vision of life on earth smeared blind by oil.’
Oil. Actually, oil was interesting – Astra had to write an essay on fossil fuels this month for school. And after that poor start, Nimma was Telling better now. Astra rearranged herself into a cross-legged position and, elbows on knees, chin on hands, leaned forward.
‘We know now,’ Nimma said sternly, ‘that oil was a powerful drug, more dangerous than heroin, more addictive than nicotine. Governments and corporations were the drug-pushers, and everywhere, all over the world, ordinary people were the addicts. Oil junkies might come to a Gaian community for a festival but they would drive home in their gas-guzzlers and urban tractors. No one could imagine more than a day without oil. Oh’ – she waved dismissively – ‘oil made life fun, there’s no denying that. If people were bored of living in cold, dirty cities, they just hopped on an arrowpain and flew halfway around the world to flop about on a beach of white sand. But this addiction to fun’ – Nimma spat the word out as if it were a cockroach in a mouthful of lentil stew – ‘this commitment to convenience, to leisure, to the mindless gratification of the senses, this pandemic lust for black gold – as the greediest of those humans called oil – was having a devastating effect on Gaia. Not only were the oil junkies draining our Mother of Her natural lubricants, they were pumping Her atmosphere full of greenhouse gases, heating Her surface to levels that threatened to render Her waterless and ferociously hot, turning Her into a barren, volcanic crone planet, like Her sister Venus.’
The story of oil was really awful. Beside Astra, Sprig gulped and stuck her fingers in her mouth. Astra put her arm around the girl’s shoulders. It was the first time the little ones would have heard about the Great Collapse. It was so awful to think about the near-death of Gaia that the Dark Time was introduced only gradually into their school studies. But it was part of Kali’s story. Shelter parents had been warned the youngest children might need extra care after hearing it.
‘Gaians, of course,’ Nimma went on, ‘didn’t need a turbine to know which way the wind was blowing. As well as building the Earthcastle, Beltane bought guns. And sure enough, when Kali was fifteen and the Great Collapse had accelerated beyond anyone’s ability to stop it, terrified and apologetic oil junkies started to arrive in Beltane. At first this was just a trickle of locals, carrying gifts and begging for shelter. The guns remained hidden and help was given willingly. It doesn’t take long to put up a yurt or even to build an Earthship if everyone helps. For three years Beltane grew stronger, attracting people who had awakened to the dangers Gaia faced and wanted to help defend Her. During this time Kali chose a partner, a young man called Peredur. They lived together in a yurt, planning to eventually build an Earthship with a group of other couples. For now, Beltane was safe.
‘But this safety depended on laws that Gaians had no hand in writing. Around the world floods and droughts and hurricanes intensified, and soon a food shortage gripped the kingdom of Yukay. This was the beginning of the Dark Time. In exchange for tithing one-eighth of their crops to the Yukay Ministry of Agriculture, Beltane Gaians were allowed to stay on their land. In other countries, though, the oil junkies panicked. Instead of respecting the Gaians’ cosy off-grid homes, our fields bursting with fruit, grains and vegetables, instead of asking to learn from us, they decided to invade us. Whole communities were slaughtered and their crops were eaten and never replanted. Yes, the people who could teach them how to live sustainably were killed for one season of food. This was the oil junkie mentality of the late Common Era in action.’
Those younger children who weren’t burying their faces in their Shelter parents’ laps gazed at Nimma with dumbstruck eyes. Adults were shaking their heads; a tear slid down Congruence’s cheek. Even Torrent was tense and alert, Stream huddled beneath his arm as if he could save her from imminent annihilation. Astra ground her teeth. Worse almost than picturing Gaians being massacred was the thought of people eating grains and vegetables and not replanting the seeds. Who could savagely waste Gaia’s fruits like that? No wonder She had taken such a terrible revenge.
Beside Nimma, Klor clapped the earth with his palm. ‘We. Remember. The Dark Time Martyrs,’ he chanted.
‘WE. REMEMBER. THE DARK TIME MARTYRS. Nimma and Klor threw their voices and arms to the sky. Around them the Sec Gens and Or-adults joined the chant:
‘WE. REMEMBER. THE DARK TIME MARTYRS.’
Everyone was chanting now, harder and harder, louder and louder, until the vibrations were travelling right up Astra’s spine. This would be an amazing shot for the film, Astra thought. Across the circle, Ahn gazed upwards, his head rolling clockwise as he directed an aerial shot of the Circle united in a thundering wave of defiance. One Kezcam, though, was still focused intently on Congruence’s face. The older girl’s eyes were lowered, and her posture was as still as a sculpture’s ‒ but Astra could see that her lips were twitching.
Then Hokma elbowed her again, and Astra stretched out her arms with the Sec Gens, her cheeks misted by the Fountain as she chanted and sweated, drumming the earth with her palms.
‘Astra: The Gaia Chronicles‘ is published by Quercus Publishing (2014) and available to purchase as a download or hard copy.