by Brian O’Connor, Germany
With a deft touch of her keypad, she started the recording.
It was the same broad they always sent – a studious, serious one from the City with so many letters after her name I got dizzy reading her ID.
“David Callaghan, Callo to my Brothers and Sisters, convict number 9124 to you.”
“That’s enough, Mr. Callaghan, let’s keep this kosher.”
She was tough, uncompromising.
“Now, let’s start the interview. Are you ready, Mr. Callaghan?”
This was my fortieth year on the inside and my tenth annual hearing with Ms. Psychiatry from the City. I was getting jaded. She sensed it.
“Mr. Callaghan, are you ready for your psychiatric evaluation?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
She stiffened, sat forward, eyes narrowed.
“Mr. Callaghan, do you accept or deny that you led a terrorist organisation, the Climate Brotherhood, to spread the lie of manmade climate change in order to deceive our great people?”
She was sharp but I could turn her. I would turn her.
“Do you plead insanity?”
“Nope.” A crack of a smile erupted across my lips. That always got a rise.
“Mr. Callaghan, you need to take this seriously. Work with me. Plead insanity, enter the re-education programme and you’ll be granted a reprieve. What else you got?”
“Memories of better times for a start, ain’t they worth something?”
“The ones you got? Not a dime. You’re gonna take some work.”
“Let’s go back to the start, to where it all began, to those so-called memories, Mr. Callaghan.”
She was brutal but in there was a heart. I could see it in her fingernails painted electric blue, the vintage jewellery, the little smudges of make up behind her ear as she lowered her head to reference her notes. She was human. We could use her.
Where did it all begin? Back around the cusp of the last century, the pivot on which everything turned, the axis around which my life rotated a full 180 – for the good and for the bad.
I opened my mouth to speak and she gripped her pen hard, tip hovering over her government-issued notepaper. It was always the same choreography, but I hoped today would be different.
One of my earliest memories was of my father’s late-night meetings in our suburban home’s lounge. I couldn’t sleep with the racket and tiptoed down the staircase, saw a bunch of suited men through a crack in the door.
It’s not right, Frank, you know it’s gone too far.
We’ve got to stop this. Enough is enough, Frank. They’re shutting us down.
Raised voices, tension like a tightrope. I never forgot it.
Frank – my father – pleaded with them. Hold the course. Don’t give in. But they did and left. He soon lost weight and grew distant. My mother’s agitated tone suggested something was wrong.
Just a kid but I knew it was bad, real bad. Son, he would say on his better days, you’ve got to keep up the fight after I’m gone. I know this is hard to understand but one day you’ll know. His eyes moistened. I’ll never forget that, my father on the verge of tears, hands shaking with fear.
They took him without warning. Mother wailing, me peeking out my bedroom window, terrified they’d take us all. He left quietly in the unassuming way he always held himself. They escorted him towards a black van – “Truth Squad” in white font on its side panels, big burly men with the same hideous label on their austere black jackets. That’s the last I ever saw of him.
Climate change scientists like my father were the first to be rounded up, you see – climate dissent was enough to get you on a watch list at best, disappeared at worst. Then they came for the activists who were brave enough to go public, hell they even came for some of the school kids on their Friday afternoon protests. None of them were ever seen again.
By the time I left school the Earth Party had total control and I had founded the Brotherhood, the where I’ll explain later. We were the last resistance, hardened on the real truth – that emissions from our forefathers irreversibly changed the climate and the only escape from this hell was zero emissions and “planetary healing”, a less clinical term than mitigation, and more likely to be understood by the education-starved citizens. Seek the facts, we opined. Never believe them. Our campaign was truth with a small t pitted against Truth with a big T.
She stops me here, always does.
“Mr. Callaghan, you know this is madness.”
“Could be, Ms…”
“You should know it by now Mr. Callaghan. It’s Ms. Davis.”
“Right, Ms. Davis, course, forgive me. Let me resume, with my version of the truth then… for the record.”
I’ll turn her alright.
The Earth Party’s version of events was as twisted as it was clever. Half-truths peppered with a good dose of lies. Sure, climate change was real. There was no denying that – 60 celsius of a summer afternoon and rarely below 30 in winter, the heat washed out by monster rains that lasted for weeks, not days – it couldn’t be hidden. However, it was a quirk of physics, a product of planet Earth’s orbit closing in on a rapidly heating Sun. It was easy to paper over the cracks. Kids were taught it from pre-school. Real physics was in our hands. We kept the long-banished research papers alive. How to get out of it? That’s where the Party excelled. Damn, I even admired their audacity and that’s saying something.
Geoengineering they called it. The principle was simple – perpetual growth while curbing the worst of the side effects through emissions capture on an awesome scale. The emissions weren’t the problem after all. It was our inability to take the edge off the impact that was holding humanity back. The people loved it – ignorant and beholden to the Party’s slick propaganda. Of course, it was the convicts like me who ran the capture projects. If you had the brains you designed them, the brawn you built them. I didn’t inherit my father’s brains and so a known climate anarchist not one month out of school was rounded up and sent to the front – to the Pacific front to be exact, to the Party’s supposed greatest achievement – turning the ocean into a vast carbon lake. I was assigned to an iron filings unit. We cruised the coast and sprinkled the damn things by night, then waited until sunrise and watched the algae grow. It was spectacularly successful. In one day the sea would be turned from deep blue to lime green where rafts of algae bloomed around the precious mineral. As soon as they died, taking their cargo of carbon with them to the seafloor, we would start the process again, at sea for weeks at a time. That’s where I recruited the Brothers.
Our campaigns were simple at first – leaflet drops, daubs of graffiti in a public place. “Reduce emissions now!”, “Let the wild grass grow!”, ”Are you a Brother or Sister? Join us.” If it captured a second of a passing commuter’s conscience then we had won, a drop of truth in an ocean of lies. Then, we scaled up – ran field courses for those brave enough to attend, at a plot of natural forest way out west amongst the vast plantations the Party had grown to stockpile fuel wood, should they run out of oil and coal.
I rue the day I got caught – a simple error cost me everything. I forgot to encrypt a damn document on my palmtop. It was a Golden Age scientific study that presented irrefutable evidence of manmade climate change. A hand me down from my father. Few if any copies but this survived the Party’s purge. The Squad had been tracking me ever since my time at the front. I wasn’t stupid and took precautions, but the raid caught me by surprise. It was high treason, the highest crime against the State –
“We know the rest, Mr. Callaghan.”
As astute as ever, but I sensed something different this time. It was in the way she listened, really listened. Something beyond words.
“Again I repeat the question, do you rescind your toxic beliefs and deny that climate change is manmade?”
“No and can I ask you something Ms. Davis?”
I decide to take my chance.
She hesitated and paused the recording, looked up with interest. Time suspended, my fate in the balance, hers too. Would she turn? I swallow a ball of saliva and hold my breath. Then she opens her mouth and yells.
Two men wielding batons descend on me from behind and cuff me. I pose no resistance.
She restarts the recording while I grimace in discomfort.
“Convict number 9124 an ever present threat to the nation. Re-evaluation set for one year’s time. Case dismissed.”
I steal one last look before they take me and receive a vacant stare in return.
“Go back to your stinking cell, Callo, we’ll see you next year.”
That night I toss and turn in my bunk, mind spirals in a whirl of doubt. The walls of my cell seem to close in and crush the space left behind, mimicking the tightness in my chest. I try to piece together the interview and play it over and over in my head. How could I have misread her? Something about her was different, but she was not who I thought she could be. She was a book I had opened but could never read.
After endless rumination, as the rising moon casts its silver light across the cell, I finally settle. My eyelids slowly give in to the weight of exhaustion but from nowhere her last words repeat in my mind. They come in whispers at first but then shout louder until I can’t shut them out. Go back to your stinking cell, Callo. She called me Callo. She definitely called me Callo. That’s my codename in the Brotherhood. Sure, I teased her with it at the start of the interview like I always do, but she never used it until now, until the interview ended. How could I not have heard it loud and clear? She finished with Callo. That beautiful short sharp codename that told me I was with friends, with the only family I had left.
My heart begins to race again. Mind alert, I reach for my notepad and begin to scribble in my journal but am distracted by the warden’s footsteps echoing down the corridor outside my cell. He always comes at this time, after lights out when even the slightest stir of a prisoner in his cell might spell trouble, but it’s the slowing of his pace that disturbs me. My blood runs cold as he stops outside my cell. The warden’s hulk of a frame casts a shadow that snuffs out the moonlight. I lean across my bunk to get a better look but can’t make out his face, see his expression. My heart is racing. This can only mean one thing and it isn’t good. As I hear the metallic rattle of keys and the clang of the bolt unlocking, I brace myself, gripping my mattress so hard my knuckles whiten, skin about to break from the strain.
The cell door swings open but the warden stands still, moves no further and instead turns away. As his shadow fades, I stay fixed to the bunk, immovable with fear. I listen to his rhythmic footsteps clicking as he resumes his rounds of the cavernous cellblock. I stay until they fade into silence, until I know I’m safe. I get to my feet and poke my head out the open door, expecting a trap. Maybe it’s too good to be true. There’s nothing to be seen or heard, just the usual wails and cries of the prisoners experiencing the demons of their haunted sleep.
I spot a white scrap of paper on the floor. It couldn’t be litter. The meticulous cleaning schedule the prisoners are subject to put paid to that possibility. I pick it up, unfold it. By the weak moonlight I just make out the scribbled words while still standing on the open corridor, unaware that I’m already a free man.
Callo, make your way immediately to Landing B and head for the service exit. The door will be left open for you. I’ll meet you there.
There’s no signature.
Again my codename, Callo. Sweet as a summer breeze. It must be her.
I move like stealth to the service door, left ajar as promised by my anonymous friend. I creep out and find myself in the prison’s loading bay. Delivery trucks are bathed in the sodium glow of the street lamps. Rats swarm across the prison trash overflowing from industrial sized bins. I don’t want to be here any longer than I need to and sweep the space again for signs of her. Nothing.
I begin to panic and sense a trap when a figure emerges from the endless shadows cast by the monstrous prison walls and guard tower. It’s a woman clad in a long business coat, headscarf concealing everything but her eyes. I can’t make out if it’s really her until her hand emerges to take mine. Then I see the blue painted fingernails. It’s her. It’s really her. Her stern voice confirms it, but this time there’s a hint of concern.
“Let’s go, Callo, we’re not safe here.”
She points to the guard tower as she says it. We run towards the safety of the shadow cast by the outer prison wall. We’re pinned to it as the guard’s searchlight sweeps in an arc around us. As soon as it passes, we emerge from the darkness and she guides me towards one last gate. She produces a key and we move quickly through it. I wonder how on earth she has it but there’ll be time for questions later.
“There’s a car waiting for us over there, follow me.”
I obey her orders as we head towards the eerie glow of a distant car park. She commands respect; something in her demeanour demands it. She is everything I thought she was and more.
I jump into the back seat of the waiting vehicle. She follows and sits by my side. The driver, a dishevelled looking middle-aged man with a pierced ear, turns to me with a grin.
“Pleasure to finally meet you, Callo.”
Never seen the guy but feel it rude to question. I go with it and let the flow of this strange night continue. As we hit the mega highway, I’m bursting with questions. I start with the most burning one.
“How’d you get me out?”
“We’ve got a sleeper agent on the inside, only wakes up when we trigger the code.”
“Hang on, you could have done this sooner and you wait till now? And who’s we?”
I can’t hold back and regret the incrimination in my tone.
“Can’t dip into the well too many times, you know that.”
“You mean there were others? I’m not the first…”
“You were our highest value target, the others carried less risk so we weren’t as careful. Let’s just say they didn’t all make it out. With you we had to be sure and we waited until the time was right, until now.”
She turns away and I dare not pry.
“And the we?”
I already know the answer but need to hear it from her.
“The Brotherhood of course, a bit slow on the uptake eh?”
“Look, I’ve been on the inside so long I don’t even know what I look like, ain’t seen my own face in forty years. Cut me some slack.”
“You’re good lookin’, don’t sweat.”
She gives a smile – sense of humour to boot. Before my next question leaves the tip of my tongue, she continues.
“I’ve been a double agent since the first psych evaluation. Just couldn’t tell you. You don’t know how hard it was to hold back, to resist a subliminal message, a signal, anything to let you know I was on your side.”
“Then why didn’t you? I knew you were different, knew you couldn’t be one of them.”
She fiddles with her earring, the one that I noticed – a flash of the old times, antique silver.
“It’s the Squad, they listen to every recorded interview, not once or twice but countless times, over and over again scrutinizing every word, every change of tone, to see if they can spot a chink in the armour. I’m a suspect as much as you. At least with you they know what you are, what you stand for. With Government employees, there’s more room for subversion. The Squad is now on the hunt for inside agents following the recent purge. I couldn’t compromise myself. You understand, don’t you?”
I lick my wounds, knowing all those years she could have done something, tried harder, but resist the urge to lash out. I’m free now, that’s all that counts.
“You’re good, Ms. Davis, don’t worry ‘bout it, water under the bridge. You did good tonight.”
“The codename’s Faith.”
Faith. I repeat it, suits her.
The long drive through the endless concrete jungle provides ample time to hear her back story, how, as a child, she watched her hometown back on the east coast consumed by relentless sea level rise within the space of a few short years. Everything was submerged except the parish church spire, peeking out of the waves like a pencil top. That was the last thing she saw. They saw it coming but the Party did nothing for her community and provided them with cheap housing deep in the City’s overcrowded and filthy precincts. An easy place for hate to spawn. She joined the Brotherhood as a message runner at first but it soon became apparent that she had the talent and the guts to be a double agent. I was right all along.
By the time we hit the outskirts of the city where the endless monoculture fields had devoured what was left of wild nature, she comes back to the present, to today, about why we’re here. I’m briefed but low on detail. Something big is going down and they need me, my legend, my stature to see it through. The breakout couldn’t be held back any longer.
The car crawls its way up an endless mud path and stops at an old farmhouse. The moonlight exposes a shabby roof drooping under the weight of neglect, outer walls filthy with stains and pockmarked with what looks like bullet holes. God knows what heinous acts took place here. Beyond the decrepit1 I imagine a fine farmhouse – a remnant of the past where when man could survive off the land, when pollinators could be relied upon, when the seasons followed the natural order. All gone now.
The headlights of the car switch off and we’re left with only the moonlight to navigate by to the front door. I tense. She senses it.
“It’s okay. We’re safe here.”
Just hearing those words, her sweet voice, makes it all go away.
The front door is a rotten fragment of wood hanging limply off the hinge. As we enter, the pungent odour of stale air and damp fills my nostrils. I gag but the darkness provides cover. Faith leads me into a ground floor room where a spitting fire casts the shadows of the assembled audience across the grimy walls. They dance and flicker while the figures before me are perfectly still. I feel disoriented but steady myself.
“Callo, meet Gaia. He’s the Brotherhood’s leader. I mean that is until now.”
The man called Gaia stands up and out of the firelight and shakes my hand with a tight grip. He’s young, no more than twenty but carries many more years in the baggage under his eyes.
“It’s an honour to meet you, Callo. We’ve been waiting so long for your return.”
I smile and thank him, take a moment to look around and scan the rest of the faces in the orange glow of the firelight. All young but wizened. I’ve no doubt they’ve done things, seen things. Youth eludes them. I’m handed a steaming mug of tea by one of them while Gaia urges me to take a seat. Faith emerges from the darkness beyond the firelight’s reach and is again by my side.
The meeting starts with a briefing from Faith. She recalls in detail the activities of the Squad – who’s next on their hit list, where they are recruiting informants from within the Brotherhood and finishes with a list of suspects. All eyes are on the floor. There is total silence except for the spitting embers of the fire. An informant in our midst would be as damaging as a Squad raid. We all know it. The names on her list don’t implicate anybody in the room and there’s a palpable sense of relief. Again, I cast my mind back to the bullet-ridden walls outside. As I drift back to the room, she’s onto the main point, hinting at what’s to come.
“Something big’s going down. Party hacks are going wild. They’re reopening the vast Northern Coal Belt. Already racked up five thousand conscripts to work the seams.”
A gasp of astonishment goes through the room. The Party has stooped to lows I never thought possible. But it’s what she says next that stuns us the most.
“That’s not all, they’re planning to use the coal to fuel the pumps – the big ones, I mean.”
Gaia interjects. “You mean the ocean pumps? The long mooted Reclaim the Land campaign? I should’ve guessed something was rumbling. Damn them.”
“Yep, you got it. The time has come to reclaim the half of Northern Europe that’s been lost to sea level rise and bail out the low-lying parts of London, New York… literally”
I had heard about it – just before my time on the inside, before I was completely news-starved. Rumours of industrial pumps, each the size of a small house, arrays of them dipping into the new shallow seas on our coastal shelves. They just hadn’t been switched on yet. Now they found the power source they needed. Holy shit. This project would emit enough coal-ridden dirt and filth to finish off whatever hopes we had of a habitable atmosphere. It had to be stopped.
Faith listened while Gaia outlined the plan.
“Listen. Here’s what we’ll do. You’re gonna take up that position – the one you were invited to apply for, right Faith?”
“Sure thing. Got my application all done and sweet-talked the Party official in charge.”
She turns to me, sensing my confusion.
“A position for Communications Director for Reclaim the Land has opened up in Propaganda Department. I’m a shoo-in. I’ll be at the nerve centre, prime position for relaying intelligence back to base.”
Gaia bursts in. “When we’ve got enough intel, we then plan the sabotage, something big, a spectacular compromise of their system. Big enough to bring the Party down, discredit them, such an epic failure that no amount of propaganda can conceal. Let the people see who they truly are.”
I like the plan. It’s audacious, ambitious, I would’ve been proud to call it my own. I feel myself starting to settle, like old times.
“We need volunteers to be on standby for the mission. I need a show of hands.” Gaia looks around the room and a volley of hands fly into the air. As I scan the room I see no hesitation, only conviction and raw courage.
I suddenly become acutely self-conscious as all eyes fall on me. My two hands are stuck to my lap like dead weights. I’m trapped like a rabbit in headlights. The weight of expectation takes me aback.
As my heart rate climbs for the umpteenth tonight, I see those blue fingernails creep across my lap. Faith gently takes my closest hand to hers.
“Come on, Callo, we’re counting on you.”
Without hesitation I let her hand gently lift mine and hold it aloft. The group erupts in hoots and applause. She turns to me and whispers in my ear.
“Welcome home, Callo, we missed you.”