Edition 11: Requiem in Diamond by D. A. D’Amico
Too much carbon in the atmosphere and humans, in all their arrogance, thought they could fix it. Their solution now threatens all life on earth. A human look at impending apocalypse and the frailty of humanity. SY
Even the custom optics didn’t show Clarisse the subtle spectral difference between the Crust and the uncoated surfaces along the fynbos. She thought she could detect a slight glistening in the leaves of distant myrtle trees, or a liquid shimmer in the low yellowbush and bredasdorp along the border of the Olifants River, but there’d be no way to tell until it was too late.
“It’s ungodly quiet.” Peter Marsh squinted into the distance, shielding his eyes with a slender brown hand. Clarisse had always thought him a bit effeminate, but she’d seen him with at least seven women in the last few days, whooping it up in town as the world slowly ended.
She wouldn’t have pictured Peter as one of the ones who’d celebrate the catastrophe. With his pinched features, dark brooding complexion, and fussy habits, she’d always imagined him going out with a whimper, not a bang. He seemed more the bookish type, not a pre-apocalyptic Don Juan.
“Animals that don’t have the sense to feel the change coming have fled from the fire.” Clarisse tucked a stray strand of her wavy chestnut hair behind her right ear and turned to stare at the broken wall of flame behind her. Sheets of angry orange roiled into the sky, accompanied by billowing clouds of thick black smoke, like children’s finger paints smeared across a photograph. “At least we won’t have to worry about wildlife.”
At least she wouldn’t have to see them die.
Kevin Downing stared briefly at the distant fires, and then turned back to the party. The children seemed to be having fun, and why shouldn’t they? Christmas in July was the best thing that had ever happened to them. He’d brought the pastries, the ones doctored with the drugs the government man had given him, but he’d wait until the last possible moment to serve them. First, he’d play Father Christmas, old Kris Kringle, and give the kiddies the best last day of their lives.
“Do you think what they’re doing in Clanwilliam will make any difference at all?” Aaron Downing tipped the amber bottle of Cuervo into the candy cane-striped mug and handed it over to his older brother. Kevin took a deep gulp and winced.
“Not a bit.” He downed the remainder of the Tequila and held the mug out to his brother for a refill. “If it were that easy, the damned Americans would have done it. But nobody’s heard a word from the northern hemisphere in weeks. It’s over, the whole world has gone.”
“Don’t say that. There’s still hope.” Aaron took a swig from the bottle, and then fell heavily into one of the flimsy white plastic lawn chairs they’d set up around the back yard. Kevin watched him, feeling that same dull ache as when he looked at his children playing in the sand pit across the way.
Aaron was his younger brother by twelve years. Still in his early twenties, still a kid at heart, he’d never have the chance Kevin had had. He’d never get to have children of his own, or a house, or even finish that wasted degree in English he’d begun at University. It was over, all of it. The Crust was coming, and with it, the end of the world.
Kevin debated mixing some of the drug in with the Tequila, taking his portion with Aaron, but it wouldn’t be fair to Sandra. As his wife, she should be with him at the end.
“Hope was the name of a girl I dated in high school.” The liquor was getting to him. He could feel the blush, and the tingle. He’d have to pull back or he wouldn’t be in shape to hand out the presents. “She got hit by a car the week before prom. Killed. We never even kissed, Hope and me.”
Clarisse sat in the jeep, her attention wavering between the tablet in her lap and the sheets of flame erupting from the shallow pits ahead. It was the biggest engineering project in South African history, and most probably the last. Radio contact had ceased from the towns across the border, leaving nothing but white noise and a building unease. Peter and the remains of the work crew had ignited the final bridge, officially cutting them off from the plains to the north.
“This isn’t going to work.” Markus Silver, the short engineering supervisor from Liberia cracked his knuckles and leaned forward. His wide dark features appeared angry in the flickering light from the fires. “There’s just not enough carbon being released.”
Clarisse pushed a clump of errant hair back from her face and drew lines through the graph playing across the tablet on her knees. The numbers made Silver appear correct, but they had no choice. She’d pulled data from the internet that showed a town in America had tried something similar, but they hadn’t the time to prepare properly. The Crust had rolled right over them, doing its job, pulling the carbon out of the air and weaving it into a new form.
“We still have to try.” She pushed the tablet away, glancing nervously into the distance as if she could see the approaching plague.
The Crust had been meant to scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, cleaning the planet. The replicating nanobots had been designed to pull carbon from the air in conjunction with a specific strain of stinging nettle, restructuring it, building graphene-like threads that bonded to the weed like a brittle diamond coating; but the Crust had jumped, first to another species of wildflower, and then from there to common prairie grass. After that, it hit fruit-bearing shrubs, leafy perennials, and then the trees. Now it was everywhere.
“Truck number four is running low on diesel.” The radio on her belt squawked, and Clarisse jumped. She’d forgotten it was on.
“Get another truck up there. Call Parker from the other side of the river. They have too many vehicles on that bank anyway.” She dropped the handset and stared out the windscreen, shaking her head. “They wouldn’t listen to me when I told them the first time. I won’t tell them again.”
“We need that fuel.”
“Then do it right now.” The sky had grown dark to the north, a greasy green glow that looked like the edges of a bruise. Was that it, then?
Sandra hadn’t stopped crying since they’d announced the all quiet from Otjiwarongo. She still thought there was a chance it had all been some kind of big joke, some colossal ruse by the Russians or Chinese, but when towns closer to home stopped reporting in she had no choice but to believe.
“Come, honey, open your present.” Kevin looked ridiculous in his Kringle suit, the skinniest Santa anyone had ever seen, but the kids were enjoying it. They’d never seen such a thing. All that was missing was the snow, but it would take a miracle for that.
They all knew it was Kevin behind the powdered white beard and silly stick-on eyebrows, of course. Even Angela, the youngest at six, hadn’t been fooled, but she played along like the others. It was Christmas, after all, and it was still only July. And the gifts were the grandest. Kevin had gone all out, spending all their money. She’d protested at first, saying they needed that money for the future, but as news got worse and worse she’d given up, first retreating to the kitchen to busy herself with baking, and then later to hide in the bedroom where the little ones couldn’t see her cry.
“Come, mommy.” Alyssa, the princess, the skinny little nine year old, held out her slender hands and urged her mother up from the overstuffed Queen Anne chair. “It’s time for your gift.”
“Your mum doesn’t need any presents.” Sandra used a wadded tissue to dab at the corners of her eyes. She told them all the allergies kept them moist, but Kevin knew better. He just wouldn’t say.
“Yea, Sands. Come and get it.” Kevin’s younger brother Aaron was already drunk, staggering and loud, but she didn’t say anything. If that’s the way he wanted to meet his end it wasn’t her place to argue.
“No, no, no…” But she stood, and with tiny halting steps, reached over to where her husband stood and took the little velvet box he’d clasped in his large gloved fingers.
When she opened it she found the biggest diamond ring she’d ever seen, marquee cut, the clear stone seeming to burn with a pure inner light. “Kevin, you shouldn’t have. This is way too much.”
“No such thing.” Kevin pushed the red felt cap back on his head and scratched a lock of brown hair that peeked out from the bleached wig. “I’ve always wanted you to have a better one than the one I’d got you. Now you have.”
He reached for her, but she dropped the box and ran from the room.
The short scrub grass sparkled like emeralds in the flickering light from the fires. Clarisse moved the binoculars back and forth over the fynbos, surveying the extent of the destruction. Here and there, she noticed small patches of matte-finish green and ocher, species of plant life that had so far escaped the Crust. It wasn’t much.
The test fires she’d set out on the range were performing as expected, drawing the Crust like moths to moonlight. Delicate cone-like mounds had formed over the fire pits, as beautiful as blown glass vases, as the bots heaped the carbon around its source. Puffs of bone-colored dust covered their flanks like volcanic ash, burned out machines that had gotten too close.
Jesus Petrillo, the short American helicopter pilot, pointed into at a dark grove of jagged rockwood trees. Something moved against the bright faceted bark. Clarisse lifted the glasses. Two chacma baboons huddled in the gnarled fingers of the upper branches, their matted fur appearing pewter-colored against the highly polished surfaces. Their movements were subdued, somber.
“It’s as if they know.”
She turned back toward the chopper. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve seen all I need to see.”
“When can we have the pudding?”
“Soon, sweetheart.” Kevin Downing let his smile fade as he turned away from his youngest daughter. He adjusted the pillow strapped to his chest under the red felt jacket, tightening the oversized belt buckle. He looked into the sky, and said another silent prayer. “Soon.”
He’d have to do it soon. There wasn’t much time left before the Crust would be upon them. He had to end it. He wished God would tell him what he was doing was right. He needed to know that he’d save his children from a worse fate, ending it quickly and painlessly, instead of letting them wither and starve.
He needed a sign.
“This might work.” She let the glasses fall to her chest, and glanced over to the thinning sheet of flame along the short escarpment where truck number four had parked. That hole was worrisome. If the Crust got through the line, it would be like they never tried to stop it. She gestured at Markus Silver, poking thin fingers into the air.
“What?” He trotted over, ducking, as if by keeping low the Crust would pass right over him. If only it was that easy to escape.
“We need to beef this up. Get Parker over here, and fast. Truck four needs to be replaced. And make sure we have no other gaps in the line.”
Kevin’s hands shook as he carefully placed the sweets on the festive plate. Aaron had fallen asleep in one of the long plastic lounge chairs, too drunk to remain conscious. The kids were still racing around the drive, breaking in the new bikes that Kris Kringle had given them. They’d be hungry soon.
“What is it? What’s wrong now?” Sandra had come up behind him. He turned quickly so she wouldn’t see him crying, spilling tears down the scratchy front of his fake white beard.
“I don’t want to do this.” He dropped the plate. It hit the glass lawn table with a grinding cry, almost sliding off the side.
“Do what?” She stepped back. Her voice was soft, thick from weeks of anguish. She sighed. “We’re all tired. We all wish that they’d call from Clanwilliam and tell us it’s finally over. None of us can take much more.”
She’d misunderstood him, thought he was talking about the Crust and not about the poison. He hadn’t told her about that. She wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t see the need or the urgency. She’d want to wait it out. Sandra was like that, ever hopeful, even in the face of absolute defeat. She’d let them slowly starve rather than surrender a single day. She would never admit their time was up.
“I don’t think—”
She threw herself against him, drowning out his words. “I don’t want to think either. Just hold me for a little while.”
He buried his head in her hair, drinking in the jasmine fragrance of her shampoo. The end could wait a little longer.
The Crust hung like pale green silk, sheets of it filling the sky, incredibly close, almost on them. It was now or never. Clarisse braced, taking one last look at their defenses.
Truck four had pulled too close to the trench. A thin trail of flame crawled up the feed pipe, heading for the inflow valve. She took a step forward, realized she’d never make it, and then started shouting.
“Back away! Get out of there!”
She waved her hands. Crewmembers screamed, sprinting from the trench. Jesus, the chopper pilot who’d grounded himself to become one of the team, swung around. He yanked the red Hyphage fire extinguisher from its mounting on the truck door. With a rapid slam against the front bumper, he released the catch and foam vomited from the nozzle end. It covered the hose, expanding quickly.
Gaps appeared in the sheet of flame. Foam dripped in gelatinous heaps from the edge of the truck, falling like whipped cream into the edge of the ditch. Sizzling hisses popped as froth smothered the burning oil.
Clarisse glanced up. The Crust seemed to hover just out of reach, as if waiting for the gap to widen. It thickened at the edges of the burn, drawn to the smoke. The gossamer illusion of silk altered. It congealed. Thick splotches appeared, interlocking plates suspended like scattered dragon’s scales across the ever-darkening sky.
“It’s too late.” She ran for the ditch, unsure why. She grabbed Jesus by the arm as she passed, dragging him to the cab of truck four. “Get the other drivers back to their trucks. Tell them to start up and bring them around. I have an idea.”
Kevin had set out the sweets. He’d also made some special lemonade, mixing the remainder of the drug into the tart liquid. He eased himself into one of the green plastic chairs, and slipped the fake beard down over his sweating chin. Playing Father Christmas in July was hot business.
“Are we doing it?” Aaron stirred from his drunken stupor on the rattan couch beside him, and for a moment Kevin feared his brother had guessed his plan. Then Aaron smiled and fell back, sleeping again. It was just a dream.
He stared at his brother’s thin face, and started crying. There wouldn’t be a world for him, or for the children. It was over; so close, but locked away under a crust of diamond. Better to end it now than linger on a planet devoid of plant life, unable to sustain itself.
“Kiddies.” He stood, arranging his beard and snatching up the tray. It was too late to turn back. He’d asked for a sign, but had received none. “Kiddies, come and get your pastries.”
Clarisse gunned the engine as the truck lurched over the embankment. She’d already propped the door, but it would take timing. Fire licked the tires, and the cab tilted ominously as she kicked the big stick into neutral and clawed her way across the seat.
She clutched the window. The truck hit a rock, leaping into the air, dragging her back into the cab as it spun. She screamed. Flames drove through the compartment, washing briefly across her body as she rolled. It struck, stopping abruptly, throwing her clear.
She tasted blood and dirt. Hot agony covered her left side, and something was wrong with her legs—but she was alive. For now.
A flash seared the sky as the truck exploded, followed by another and another. It was like a bombing range as trucks burst into oily black clouds of flame all along the line. The bright cloud of Crust congealed above her, swirling with a glow of emeralds, pulsing with an inner light. It hadn’t worked. The Crust was coming through.
Then Clarisse heard a scream, and held her breath, expecting the worst. Casualties couldn’t be helped, not at the end of the world.
“They’re burning up! It’s working, they’re all burning up!”
The Crust started breaking apart, turning to ash and falling across her face, mixing like gritty mud with her tears.
Angela was the first to snatch up a pastry. Kevin had debated taking some before the children, but someone had to stay behind to make sure everything was cleaned up. His hands trembled as he held it up for her, waiting for her to take the first bite.
“Why are you crying, Father Christmas?” The girl stared at him with big blue eyes, and started crying herself. She couldn’t possibly know why.
He moved the pastry a little closer to her mouth. “No reason, honey. Here, now just take a bite. Take a bite and everything will be fine.”
She leaned forward, sticking her tongue out to taste the powdery confection. He wanted to pull it away. Every fiber of his body screamed to protect his children, but it would be easier this way. They’d suffer less. He’d be able to make sure they’d go quietly and without pain. He had no choice.
“Just a bite, dearie.”
He recoiled with a gasp as a bit of white powder fell on her tongue. He’d changed his mind. He didn’t want to do it anymore. He couldn’t kill his children.
“What the hell?” Aaron had opened his small bloodshot eyes, holding one trembling hand to the sky. “Snow? Here? Now?”
Then he shrugged and passed out again.
Kevin almost collapsed as well. White powder filled the sky, but as he held it between his fingers it felt dry and gritty. Not snow, but ash, lots and lots of it. It must have had something to do with what they’d done in Clanwilliam. They must be fighting the Crust—and winning.
He quickly snatched up the pastries, dumping them and the lemonade into the rubbish. His heart hammered as he realized how close he’d come, how he’d almost missed the sign.
“It’s a miracle, snow in the middle of summer.” Sandra had come out of the house, squinting to the north, into the fynbos, shielding her eyes from the thickening squall. She reached out and straightened Kevin’s Kris Kringle hat, smiling for the first time in a month.
As with many aspects of the author’s life, David’s writing skills are almost entirely self-taught. He has been writing speculative fiction as a hobby for many years. His favorite genre is whatever flavor of speculative fiction happens to burn through his brain at any given moment, ranging from clock punk, high fantasy, space opera, horror, mystery, and even children’s stories. He’s the winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future award, and his work has appeared in over a dozen other publications. Find him at http://www.dadamico.com