Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Space Bats Redux

The Archdruid Report is holding a second short story contest, so I thought I’d give it another shot. Below is my entry. I hope readers will enjoy, or at least tolerate, this foray into short fiction. Tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled programming.

After the Deluge

When Sebastian Cole was a boy he once saw a picture of the earth from space. It was old and crumbling, a copy of a copy of copy from back through the mists of time that had been preserved somehow. The first time he saw it he thought it was a picture made by God himself, because only God could see the earth that way. God must have bequeathed this image to the human race, he thought, along with His revelation, so that we could see the earth from God's vantage point, one orb suspended in the lonely blackness of infinite space. Upon seeing it, we would realize that the earth was finite, with clear bounds and limits and how dependent we all were upon His grace and kindness for our preservation.

For some reason that image came to his mind as he stood on the quay watching the emaciated workers unload cargo from the hold of the Bounty. A traditional Chinese saying went, 'Shanghai is heaven for the rich, hell for the poor,’ but Cole had seen enough of the world to know that such a saying applied everywhere. The coolies were a portion of the 80 million people who had been displaced by the ongoing submergence of the Yangtze river delta. The city was inundated with climate refugees from all over the coasts of South China. In the age of expansion, the global population kept moving to the coastal cities which is exactly the opposite of where they should have been going given the realities of the climate. Cole boarded the ferry to take him to his quarters in the city.

Shanghai's skyline was still dominated by the soaring towers of the Pudong district which emerged from the seas district soaring to the heavens. Cole often wondered, as did many others no doubt, how mankind was able to construct such things. The dams and flood barriers built generations ago were still not enough to stop the rising seas or relentless storm surges from the more frequent and forceful typhoons. Cole thought of the irony of the city's name, which in Chinese meant 'above the water.' It had once been home to twenty five million people. Now with less than half that number, the entrepot city it was still among the largest cities in the world, in part due to the new age of sail.

Those who built those towers must have thought they would last forever, unlike the crumbling ruins of the Great Wall to the west, or vine-encrusted temples of vanished Khmer Empire in neighboring Cambodia. In time, China began to once again resemble the disintegrating Han dynasty depicted in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or the warlord-infested disarray when China was carved up and occupied by the industrial powers before China became the world's biggest industrial power herself. China's entire history was one of continuous rise and fall, of unity and dissolution, of order and chaos. Of all civilizations, this one more than any other should have known the impermanence of human achievement.

The towers testified to a time long since past, the mute steel and glass Moai of the fossil fuel age, and like their brethren in Easter Island in the South Pacific, they became ever larger and grander the more the society that built them undermined the conditions for its own existence. The facade of the Shanghai Tower twisted up thousands of feet in the air like the trunk of a tree, its shimmering glass outer skin, now being slowly dismantled, opened at the top. The great spherical orb of the Oriental Peal Tower which so long gave the city its distinct futuristic look now was barely above the water, it's three supporting legs submerged deep beneath the sea. The tops of the towers vanished in the smoky haze caused by centuries of burning low-grade coal and worsened by hamfisted attempts at geoengineering by desperate countries; the only benefit was the brilliant sunsets. Gazing up at the majestic monoliths, Cole thought of the words that always went through his mind when looking upon them, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.'

The ferry meandered among the buildings and under the great multilane concrete freeways, now cracked and spalling, swooping through the city like bowls of flat noodles. Shanghai was now a city on the water, of barges and canals and junks and sampans floating in and among old buildings whose foundations lay permanently submerged beneath the sea, like many of the coastal cities of the world. New entrances to the buildings and been hastily constructed on bamboo stilts to access what one had been the upper floors of buildings, and areal ropeways crisscrossed the city to quickly move goods out to the buildings and boats on the water giving a makeshift quality to the city where old and new interacted in jarring ways, as it had always done in Shanghai since the Europeans made it their major gateway to China. The fading light reflected off the glass of the towers, shimmering down on water in the canyons between the buildings giving an eerie, otherworldly glow to the Pudong district. The old factories east of the river now lay entirely under water; the coastal dikes and flood walls no match for the rising seas. Twenty million people once lived below the high tide mark and had to relocate to higher ground. There were not many places for them to go.

The ferry crossed the river to the Bund, where the old colonial buildings rose silently from the water in their stately neoclassical grandeur. Once plundered by Western Europe, the Middle Kingdom eventually unified and rose once again to become the last great world power, as well as the last great blowout of the fossil fuel age. Most of the tallest buildings erected during the great age of expansion were here in China, now mostly abandoned. The grandest shopping plazas were here too, now pressed into service as apartments and farmer's markets and aquaponics facilities which turned the city's volumes of waste into food. The ferry landed at the roof of an old neoclassical building now serving as a ferry dock. From there Cole made his way to his quarters in the French Concession, one of the hundreds of residential towers that lay half deconstructed for lack of maintenance.

Cole stood on his balcony looking out over the city. The neighboring rooftops were occupied by vegetable gardens and solar water panels. Clotheslines once again straddled the alleyways. As he gazed out over the city he lit his pipe and slowly drew in a drag. Opium smoking had once again come back into fashion; rather than distract from the permanent harshness of life as in times past, now it provided a popular way for a newly impoverished population to forget the privileged lifestyles and creature comforts that had once been enjoyed by their ancestors. Occasional cold, hunger and thirst were easier to bear while riding the white tiger. Entertainment options were now more expensive relative to opium, so it was no surprise that it had made a strong comeback, although this opium probably originated in a lab rather than a poppy field. The benefit to that was that the opium was often blended with hallucenogens to make it more potent. Opium soothed the masses and kept the city calm, so the authorities looked the other way.

The tidal power stations were not enough to meet the sprawling city's needs, and the farther one got from the inner districts, the darker the night became. Cole watched the rolling blackouts play across the city for a while, as the opium haze swirled around his head. As the night cooled, he went back inside in daze, feeling as though he were outside of his body, outside of time and space and lay down to sleep in the inky blackness of the Shanghai night, dreaming of the world that must have been, when those godlike towers were new and full of people and the highways full of cars, and the malls full of shoppers, and the future a limitless horizon of possibility, when the average man lived a life greater than legendary emperors of old thanks to limitless power. Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations. Soon the monsoon rains would come from the west and lash the city with their fury.

In the morning Cole left the building and strolled under the persimmon trees of the bicycle-filled boulevard to the Tang Yun tea house which catered to the few international residents that still lived in the city, most of them sailors or merchants like himself. Cole avoided eye contact with the stern faced youths of the military police who patrolled the streets, batons in hand, keeping order. They had a tendency to be unnecessarily aggressive, especially toward foreigners, a lingering aftermath of the war.

The nearby gambling parlors were open twenty-four hours and provided enough energy for the entire neighborhood with all of the pulling of levers and spinning of wheels.  Cole pulled up a bench at an outdoor table, picked up a newspaper and scanned the daily headlines. Avian flu had broken out in the Northern Suburbs again and the area was under quarantine. Nearby, a man plucked a tune on the pipa, the traditional Chinese lute, which blunted the shouts of the gamblers.

Cole ate a small breakfast meal of steamed buns dipped in vinegar and green tea. Being able to procure extra food ration coupons via the black market was one of the perks of his occasional smuggling work. He heard a voice from a nearby table over the music.

"You know, floods have always played a role in Chinese culture."

Cole turned to see an older Asian gentleman in glasses and a trenchcoat sitting near him. Yet the man wasn't speaking in the Shanghai dialect; he was speaking English, even though his gaze did not depart from the newspaper at his table. "Beg pardon?" said Cole.

"The great flood of China occurred during the reign of emperor Yao, great grandson of the Yellow emperor. In the early days of the crisis no one could contain the flood waters, which left the kingdom inundated and lasted for generations. Both the Yellow and Yangtze rivers flooded. This led to great social chaos and disruption. Very bad if you are Chinese Emperor. 'Like endless boiling water, the flood is pouring forth destruction. Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering!'"

The man was quoting from the Chinese classics, but he may just as well had been describing most everywhere in the modern world now. He continued, looking up from his paper.

"Emperor Yao appoints Gun, prince of Chong, to subdue the waters. Over many years, Gun tries to hold back the water using dams and dikes and magic earth, but ultimately he is unsuccessful. For his failure, Emperor banishes Gun to Feather Mountain where he lives out the rest of his days."

"Then Emperor appoints his son Gun Yu as minister, and Gun Yu is finally is able to  stabilize the country and contain the rising waters. 'Great Yu controls the waters,' is a common motif in Chinese literature and art. It's one of the Chinese classics that all scholars were expected to know by heart in the imperial exams. That is the name of the tune the man is playing."

Cole's attention was drawn again to the music. The man went on, almost talking to himself.

"A major theme of the tale of Gun Yu is an emphasis on the heroism and praiseworthy efforts of the people and the leaders to mitigate the disaster. The flooding is alleviated by constructing dikes and dams, digging canals, widening or deepening existing channels, and teaching these skills to other people."

"Uh-huh." Cole regarded the strange little man. Sitting up and changing his tone, he said,

"But your Noah, well he just goes off by himself and builds a boat, preserves what he can, and lets everyone else drown. That is the founding myth of your civilization. What does that tell you?"

Cole did not wish to argue with him. He knew the obvious answer, so he said it. "That the Chinese solve problems collectively with wise governance, whereas in the West it's every man for himself."

"Exactly," the man replied, taking a swig and slowly nodding. "Your God want to punish people because they are evil. But in China, great floods happen because of natural causes, not as punishment for something. Flood is nature, and nature is something that happens. Much more realistic, I think. Flood affect everyone, rich and poor, doesn't matter. In China, He Bo, god of the Yellow River, even provides a map of the river to Great Yu to help him subdue the waters."


"But your Noah, he just looks at a rainbow, as if that's something unusual after a rain shower!" chuckled the old man. "Then he gets drunk and naked and goes to bed with one of his daughters. No wonder your Western civilization is so screwed up. You can tell a lot about a culture by its myths."

Sebastian felt a flash of anger, but he couldn't really argue with the man. Unlike China's ancient civilization, America's culture had shallow roots. When the energy ran out, it really was every man for himself. While other countries managed to undertake some sort of preparations, the United States dithered, it's outmoded, dysfunctional and corrupt government controlled by a small oligarchy who prevented any sort of change.

Much of the central part of his homeland lay empty and abandoned. The great rush for the last scraps of hydrocarbons had left a great part of the land toxic; water was poisoned for natural gas, the forests chopped down for wood, the earth dug up for raw materials, the topsoil washed out to the sea and entire mountaintops removed for coal. People didn't care. America had been a boomtown on the scale of an entire continent, and like any boomtown, when the boom went bust little was left but abandoned buildings, desperate stragglers and tumbleweeds. Abandoned railroads rusted in the rain, bridges collapsed, highways became cracked and rutted and overgrown with kudzu, aquifers were depleted, snowcaps melted, and the buildings, often little more than shoddily built plywood shacks and cinderblock bunkers, were easily reclaimed by an advancing nature. Much of the central part of America had reverted to farmland, and buffalo once again roamed the plains. Wild packs of dogs rampaged through the great empty cities of the former industrial heartland, once as grand as any of those in Europe, while the buildings fell apart and street gangs fought over what was left. In many ways it now looked the way it did before the Europeans arrived to plunder the continent. Americans built their entire civilization as if they expected it not to last more than a few generations, and this had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The inundated older coastal cities were still populated, but even the great imperial capital had reverted to the fetid swamp from which it came, it's crumbling monuments maintained by a handful of stalwart volunteers. Goats now grazed on the lawn of the White House whose resident once claimed the powers of life and death over the citizens of the entire world.

Cole's ancestors had lived in the San Francisco bay area, now submerged under the great inland sea. His family fled to higher ground, to the cities that were founded around the sea. The cities and countryside around the inland sea had been maintained and defended by the Lee family, with the Tadzikian family ruling the southern part of the state around what once was Los Angeles. It was an oasis of relative enlightenment from the harsh theocracies farther out West, beyond which lay the Empty Quarter. It also attracted runaway slaves from the backward societies of the Neoconfederate South, and refugees from the drought-stricken areas of the Southwest. Most of the great cities of North America were under the benevolent protection of a powerful family dynasty. When he was old enough Cole secured a job on a commercial freighter and went out to sea. Eventually he became skipper of his own craft which he now sailed regularly hauling goods around the world in the new age of sail.

The man continued his odd speech. "But this flood, I think is punishment. Punishment for arrogance. Punishment for sin. Punishment for violating the earth. We poisoned that air, and the ice melted, and the great cities that once reached up to the heavens fell under the rising waters. Maybe in five thousand years, they make legends about us, heh." The man fell silent.

Finally, Cole could no longer contain himself. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

"No...but I know you - Sebastian Ko. I need something from you. You have a ship. I need passage on your ship. To Osaka. I can work. I good cook."

It was true, there were not many ways to cross the Pacific besides getting passage on board a shipping vessel, passenger ships and flights having long since been abandoned. There were zeppelin flights across the Atlantic, but not many ways to get into Japan, which had once again become a closed society.

Cole sat back on the bench. "Listen, uncle, I'm a cargo freighter, not a passenger ship. I don't really have the room." He knew could probably take the man without too much trouble, but Cole was not in the habit of taking strangers aboard, and wasn't about to start now. "Besides, there are pirates from the Philippines active this time of year. It's too dangerous."

The old man produced a coin from his pocket. "Very old coin this," he said. "Platinum. This coin once worth ten thousand yuan. Not so anymore, but platinum in coin still very, very valuable." He produced a gold watch from his pocket. "Gold watch, also very valuable. We gamble. I flip coin. I win, I get passage on your ship, and you take coin and watch for payment. You win, you get coin. What do you say?"

Cole suspected a trick. Sensing his reluctance, the man said, "No trick I assure you." He flipped the coin a number of times. It came up different several times. "You flip. You call." He placed it on the table. "To make even better, I offer you a meat coupon. You eat good tonight." He produced a brown ticket, as opposed to the usual white for starches and green for vegetables. Even Cole had a hard time getting his hands on one of those.

There wasn't much of a downside for Cole, and the old man knew it. What sort of game was he playing? Cole couldn't resist. He picked up the coin and felt it in his hands. He could discern nothing unusual about it.

"All, right. It's against my better judgment. But you're subject to my rules. My ship, my  rules. And you'll work for your passage."

"Of course. As you say, Sebastian Ko."

Cole tossed the coin high into the air, past the second floor of the building. "Heads," he called. The coin fell to earth and bounced repeatedly on the ground rolling to a stop.


Cole was woken up by the morning light filtering through the woven shade. The spring that powered the ceiling fan had wound down, and the room was filled with stagnant air. He could remember nothing that had happened to him after his encounter with the mysterious stranger. Had it really happened? It had all been so surreal, perhaps it was just a dream from too much opium. He could still taste the barbecued pig’s trotters and rice wine in his mouth. Yes, that must explain it; he had somehow gotten a hold of a meat ration coupon while gambling. The amino acids from such a meal combined with the smoke had caused unusually vivid hallucinations. Then Cole noticed the coin and watch on the lacquered dresser. The old man was real. His name and address were written on a scrap of newspaper. His name was apparently Fu Xi.

Cole went outside and hailed a nearby bicycle rickshaw. The old man lived in one of the older areas of the city that had managed to escape demolition during Shanghai's building boom. Fortunately it was outside of the quarantined area. The driver skirted the rickshaws and bicycles and e-bikes and scooters powered by sorghum ethanol that populated the streets, turning and heading down a long, narrow longtang alley and stopped at the gateway to an old two-story Shikumen townhouse. Cole pressed some scrip into the hands of the driver and told him to wait. He walked through the high brick outer gate into a courtyard filled with flowering mulberry trees. The old man sat on an old steamer trunk with wheels under a tree reading a book in Chinese. Probably some sort of ancient Chinese classic, thought Cole.

"You know why they build those towers?" asked the old man looking up at a nearby skyscraper. "In every coastal city in the world, they make these towers. You a sailor. You been to New York and London, places like that?"

"Yes, I have," said Cole.

"All underwater now. And what happened in these towers, eh? Why build towers on a flood plain on alluvial silt, eh? They have to pump out the groundwater to do it. Causes the city to sink. Why would anyone do that, and why do it all over the world?" Because finance started as global trade. First trade goods, then trade nothing but money. That's why all financial centers are on the ocean."

"In the towers, people used to work all day long to channel the world's wealth into the bank accounts of a handful of people. Several thousand people had as much wealth as eighty percent of the human race. All day every day, people sit in the towers in front of computers and gamble until all the money ends up in the bank accounts of these few people. Eventually they become rich and everyone else is poor. Anger seethed against the financiers. They put a statue of a golden bull in front of the market in New York. What does that remind you of?"

Cole answered, "They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt."

"That's right," he replied. "Money was their religion and market their god - all wise, all knowing infallible. Salvation was no longer for the next life. The goal was to gain as much money as possible in the here and now. The financiers controlled the whole world. They accumulated individual fortunes greater than countries. In fact, the countries could no longer fund themselves, all of the money was in the hands of the financiers, who run everything. Countries fall apart all over the world. Wall Street underwater now too, in every sense of word. When their god turned against them, there was nothing they could do."

"You know, the Chinese invented paper money," he continued. "The Chinese called it 'flying money' because it tended to blow away in the wind. It has been one of money's most enduring qualities ever since. But since it not backed by anything real, they make more and more of it until it worth nothing at all. Then, finally, it is abandoned. In ancient China they put to death anyone who counterfeit. In the twenty-first century, they make them emperors." He closed the book. Fu Xi got off his trunk and insisted that it come with them. "Very important contents," he said.

"What's in it?", asked Cole. "That is not your concern," said Fu Xi, as he hauled the trunk onto the rickshaw, to the driver's obvious dismay. They headed for the docks.

"You Americans move all your factories over here to Asia. Then you construct the largest moving objects ever built to move all your stuff back across the ocean. Boats as big as these skyscrapers sitting on their side. And all the time you leaders make your own people poor. And most of the stuff you throw away anyway. So crazy. "

"Your own people make you poor. No wonder you fail as a country."

In the short time he had known him, Fu Xi had managed to insult both his country and his religion. Yet for some reason he liked the man. Everything he said he said as a matter-of-fact, with no tone of insult. He seemed to say what he thought without regard to convention. Sensing this. Fu Xi said, "when you get as old as I am and have seen what I have seen, you no longer care what people think. I recommend it for everyone."

The Bounty was a three-hulled ‘ocean pickup’ outfitted with the latest seafaring technology. The pickup's hull was an epoxy/wood composite. It was designed to carry a ton and a half of cargo, plus crew, even though the ship itself weighed less than a ton. It could sail at working speeds of twelve knots fully loaded and sixteen unloaded. She was equipped with a seawater impeller engine which was powered by vertical turbines high up on the masts which spun in the breeze, sending a high-voltage current down the through the masts to the battery packs stored in the decks below. The sails were made of a solar harvesting polymer, with wiring hidden in the rigging making each mast a mini power plant as well as the main method of propulsion. The ship had a forward osmosis filter which used a concentrated salt solution to draw water from the crew's urine and the waste urea was turned into ammonia by enzymes in a biorector and fed to an electrochemical cell for additional current. The soil and waste products were composted in a digester and the heat was put through a recovery ventilator to warm the cabins. She could store enough freeze dried food for months. A microwave heat ray capable of blasting 1,000 degrees would deter all but the most determined pirates, but due to its power needs would be used only in the most extreme circumstances.

Cole went to the shipping bureau and got the latest shortwave radio weather report. All clear. He filled out the required governmental paperwork. They got on board the ship and set off, floating past the submerged skyscrapers and flotilla of vessels out into the Sea of Japan under the hazy sky. Cole sat for a time on the deck and smoked his pipe and watched the blood red sun sink into the acid sea.

Fu Xi proved to be an amiable companion. True to his word, he was an excellent cook, able to make even the freeze-dried food taste palatable with the right combinations of sauces and spices. Most of the time he kept to his books. Occasionally Fu xi and Cole played Weiqi, the game Cole knew by its Japanese game, Go, to pass the time. Fu Xi won every time.

For days they sailed the Sea of Japan without seeing not another living thing. The sea was calm and quiet and dead. Very little life existed in it now near the surface, the great gasoline-powered trawlers and their mile-wide nets having vacuumed the seas clean of life to feed the growing populations around the Sea of Japan. It was not unheard of to cross the entire Pacific ocean without seeing a fish or a bird or another living thing besides jellyfish. The winds were good, and they made good progress.

One evening Cole sat out on the deck staring up at the moon and the sky blanketed with stars. He lit his pipe and thought once again of that photo he saw so long ago. He couldn't imagine how they had done it, how they had sailed among the stars as if it were just another ocean and that human footprints still occupied the surface of the moon. And he marveled at how impossible that was now, when the human race was barely surviving on a planet they had so thoroughly trashed. He heard Fu Xi's voice behind him.

"Not many people got to see this long ago," he said emerging from the hold." Over half the world live in cities way back then. Too much light."

"I can't imagine not being able to see the stars. It must have had an effect on them," said Cole.

"Of course it have an effect! Half the world living in an environment created by humans, cut off from nature. How else can you explain what we do to the planet? How else can you explain what happened?"

"I will cause your descendants to become as numerous as the stars of the sky, and I will give them all these lands. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed."

"And they were!" replied Fu Xi recognizing Cole quoting God's promise to the patriarch Abraham. "But was that such a good idea? Your God full of strange ideas. Not serve you well."

Cole pointed to a star. "Sirius is used for sailors to navigate. It's been used for probably centuries, maybe even back to the first humans to settle the Pacific. Do you know what island lies directly under Sirius?"

"No," said Fu Xi.

"Something even you don't know, I don't believe it!," said Cole, reveling in the moment. "It lies directly over Tahiti. You know, one thing that has always fascinated me is the story of the Bounty mutiny. I even named my ship after it. Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers, they know the penalty for mutiny is death and yet after two weeks in Tahiti they do it anyway. Now, here is a man from the first and most advanced Industrial society in the world, the very heart of the industrial revolution. He comes to a people living practically in the stone age, on the beach in palm huts, eating fish and coconuts. So what does he do? He puts Bligh on a dinghy, ships him off, and burns Bounty. In order to keep people in the British Navy, they needed to punish people. The penalty for mutiny or desertion was death. But the Tahitian people didn't have to do anything to keep their people from becoming British. What does that tell you?"

"But what happens next is even more interesting,” replied Fu Xi. “The British navy went after them to hunt them down. But why go through all the trouble? They had escaped, the deed was done. What use could there be? To send an example, yes, but something more. You see, industrial society could not tolerate anyone escaping from it. There cannot be any alternative, or it doesn't work. It's like a prison. You could not choose to opt out. So every alternative must be destroyed. And they did it, too."

They were silent for a time.

Finally, Cole spoke. "There's a place in the middle of the ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That's where the remains of the planet's resources ended up, in a big patch of dead sea. The Gyre is enormous, probably almost the size of China itself. Most of the junk hauled across the ocean in those giant ships ended up here. Often people have a vision of sailing for days and days through a sea of floating plastic bottles, packaging, syringes, and rubber ducks bobbing in the water. It's not like that, of course, although you do frequently see bits of junk. No, most of the poisoning is microscopic, invisible polymers and chemical sludge suspended in the water, making the center of every ocean a dead zone unfit for life."

If a man poison you, you kill him. If poison all around you, who you kill then?" Fu Xi pointed to the stars. "We even fill up space with junk, ha! "

"For many years people thought there was life on one of those stars, and that they would come down here and save us from ourselves," said Cole, drawing from his pipe. "Are you aware of the Fermi paradox? With all those millions of stars and planets and galaxies, surely the odds are that the same forces that forged humans into intelligent life were at work elsewhere and produced another civilization as advanced or more advanced than our own. So why is there no trace of them? Where are they?"

"Paradox not hard to explain," said Fu Xi. "Any civilization given ultimate power destroys itself. Even the ancient Greeks knew that. Fermi should have known that."

"Do you think there is life out there?"

Maybe. So where are they? Well, where are we? We can no longer even get to the moon. Maybe they make all the same mistakes we did. Or maybe they just avoid us," laughed Fu Xi.

"When man gained power, he forgot the wisdom of so many ancient cultures," said Cole.

"One man smart. Two men smarter. Three men even smarter. All men? Stupid."

Traditional Chinese proverb?

"Fu Xi proverb," he said, with a puckish grin.

While China was the last great indulgent blowout of the fossil fuel age, Japan was the first industrialized power to leave the party. What had taken multiple generations on the island on the opposite side of the Eurasian landmass the Japanese had been accomplished in one. This small archipelago had once been home to the world's second largest economy before it was overtaken by China.  The economy crashed and the bubbles burst twenty years before it happened in the rest of the world. All attempts to revive it over the next few decades were of no avail. Finally, Japan just decided to shrink, and the decision meant than Japan had fared far better than most everywhere else like the United States, Africa or Europe. Already in the late twentieth century it's population had started to shrink, and had done so ever since. Only later did the rest of the world follow suit. It was now down to nearly what it had been in the Edo period centuries prior.  Japan had reconfigured herself to run on the heat generated deep under the surface of the Ring of Fire.

The great Osaka castle towered over the harbor.  It's roof tiles harvested solar energy, and the concrete in the facade contained titanium dioxide that cleaned the air. The Japanese had learned to combine traditional and modern techniques to create beautiful and advanced architectural forms based on traditional designs. Osaka castle was rebuilt many times in its history. It had once been made an ammunition factory, and was bombed during the Second World War. Today, its grounds were filled with the parabolic mirrors of a great solar factory. Once poor in fossil fuel resources, Japan used the energy it could harvest to remain a manufacturing and export center. The Japanese had closed their society once again, and like the original Sakoku period, foreigners were only allowed in certain tightly controlled areas for trading purposes and cultural exchange. That isolation had produced benefits. Japan, from what Cole could see of it, was much more orderly than most of the other places around the world that had endured the chaos of contraction.

"I don't think you Americans are going to show up with gunboats and open up the country again," said Fu Xi grinning. "Maybe one day they come to open up your country. Full circle."

They came ashore and registered with the local authorities, as was required. The agent silently stamped their residency cards, set to expire in three days. Cole wondered what Fu Xi's plan was. From there they headed to Osaka's celebrated Dōtonbori district with its walls of buildings decked out in brightly colored flags and signs. The streets were full of people dressed in a hybrid mix of traditional and western clothing. Finally they came to a clearing near of the canal which ran along the street.

After five days of travel with this strange, wise old man, Cole could not let him walk away without at least asking a question, the question that had been bothering him the entire voyage.

"Who are you, really, Fu Xi?"

The old man was silent for a long time. His usually jovial demeanor completely changed. His voice was barely a whisper. "Fu Xi tell you, but you won't believe him."

"Tell me. At this point, I think I can believe anything," said Cole.

"You may wonder why I know so much about the past. From before the waters rose and drowned the civilizations that produced so much destruction. I know all this because I live through it."

"But that's impossible," said Cole. "That was centuries ago."

"Yes. But in those days, we discovered ways to extend human life. They used molecular biology. They were able to repair on the cellular level. Telomeres, they were called. They fray as you age, like ends of a rope. If you sew them back together, cells can reproduce without aging. Like the Galapagos tortoise, I too have outlived both the age of oil and my own usefulness."

He continued, "Many generations ago, I was a once billionaire. Not anymore. China was then the richest and most advanced place on earth. Maybe it still is, but that is not saying much." He sighed, as if discharging a great burden. "Now, even if anyone could still do the procedure, I would go not through with it. I have lived long enough. Long enough to see the folly of humanity. I know what we think we want we do not really want. A Chinese curse, the oldest Chinese curse of all, 'may you get everything you wish for. Now," he said, "I am ready to die. I have always wanted to see the cherry blossoms and climb Mount Fuji before I die."

"What is in the trunk?"

"Records. From time long ago. From the age of expansion," said Fu Xi. "Surprisingly, little of that time has been preserved. They took all of their information and put it all into something they called 'the cloud.' But the cloud proved just as ephemeral as its namesake," he chuckled. "It's probably just as well," he continued, "most of it was just noise. They assumed that information was the same as knowledge, which of course it is not. I am trying to preserve what I can from those times, and this time hopefully use it with more wisdom and humility."


"Maybe Atlantis is the right legend to think about. Technologically advanced but morally bankrupt civilization is drowned beneath the waves, and all that is left is stories of what used to be. Stories become legend. Legend become fantasy."

Cole was silent, taking it all in. Seeing the confused look on his face, Fu Xi waved his hand.

"You still don't understand, do you, young man? What I trying to say all along. Flood stories different but all flood stories the same. After flood come rebirth. After flood come new world, a better world. Another chance. In China, in our legends, the flood is not symbol of failure or wickedness, it's a symbol of progress; of a new type of society. A better type of society. But it's up to us."

He handed Cole a book.  "A gift, from me to you, Sebastian Ko. Very much thank you." And with that, the old man turned and walked away along Dōtonbori canal, whistling the pipa tune that played outside the teahouse in Shanghai.

Cole returned to the ship and opened the book. It was a portfolio of the works of Paul Gaugin. A page was bookmarked, and the book fell open to a two page spread of Gaugin’s masterpiece, D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous - Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? The bookmark was a picture of the earth from space. Cole sat and pondered the painting as the darkness enveloped the city.

That evening as he left port, Cole turned the bow east and sighted Sirius in the evening sky.

© 2014 Chad Hill


  1. Followed the link from your comment on JMG's blog. I really enjoyed the read! I'd wish you good luck with this story, but I think you're already a shoo-in.

  2. Thanks! I don't know if that's true - it sounds like he's got a lot of good entries.


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