Edition 18: The Carbonite’s Daughter by Deryn Pittar
Highly regarded by all the judges of this year’s Story Quest Short Story competition, Deryn Pittar won with a story of emerging womanhood, in an unfamiliar, post-nuclear world. It was the detailed undercurrents of resistance of the status quo and the alienating effects of religion that truly allowed this piece to shine. SY
I keep a tight grasp of mother’s hand as we hurry down the sloping passage, deeper into the mountain. My small breasts bounce and tingle. They hurt and I wish I had enough boob to wear a bra. I will soon. The walls are warm and already my heavy coat is making me hot. I want to stop and take it off but we have a train to catch.
“When will we see Dad?”
Mother stops and puts her arm around my shoulder, whispering into my ear, “Shhh. The walls are listening.”
I look around. No ears in sight. She is talking in riddles again. I look into her dark brown eyes, her Welsh heritage she tells me, and I see fresh grey hairs around her temple. Today she looks older. She kisses my cheek and smiles. The sodium lights in the passageway pick out the fine lines around her eyes. Why haven’t I notice this before? My excitement for the last month has blinded me to everyday things, but I haven’t seen my father for two years. I whisper back.
She checks her timepiece, an old fob watch from my many-times-great grandfather. She closes the lid and rubs her fingers over the smooth silver case. It has been promised to me when she dies. Hugging me again she murmurs, “Your father is hoping to get on the train at Mount Aorangi station. The police are looking for him so we have to be very careful not to acknowledge him, until we are safe in Queenstown. He will find us there.”
I nod. A swell of excitement fills me at the thought of seeing him again.
“Now hush with your questions, we have to hurry.” She takes my hand, her palm soft and smooth from spinning wool and we run along the passage together, ever deeper into the dark, coal-lined tunnel. Our footsteps echo off the hard rock floor. We must be the last to arrive. We reach the turnstile at the station, breathless and hot, and hand our passes to a grumpy-looking guard. He scans our tickets with his electronic wand, staring at me until I blush, before he lets us through. Many people mingle on the platform waiting for the train. I look around. There are other girls there, accompanied by an adult, and a few boys. The boys are tall and handsome and look as if they spend hours keeping fit, which they probably do. I don’t see anyone I know.
Everyone will be catching the train from Westport to Queenstown, underground most of the way. Queenstown and the Remarkables Range are under a synthetic dome and it’s the only place we can go to get sunshine. Our bones weaken without vitamin D.
Those lucky enough to be classified as prime breeders, like me, can go for a month’s holiday. At twelve years of age I need supervision, so Mother can come with me. These mountain ranges are riddled with coal. It has saved us from the nuclear winter. Water is plentiful from snowmelt and underground rivers. Water and coal power the steam trains that carry the survivors of 3050 up and down the spine of the South Island, deep inside the Southern Alps.
At school we learn about the Nuclear Dawn in 3050. We have a lot of history lessons. All those religious fanatics finally got their hands on enough plutonium and nuclear waste to make a bomb or two—and explode them. Matched by the nuclear missiles from the bombed countries, the whole earth seared. Luckily we live in New Zealand, as far away as you can get from the destruction. The people here had enough warning to go underground into the shelters; with barely five years to garnish the underground gardens, dig more living areas. By connecting all the mining tunnels that riddled the Southern Alps, a vast underground railway system was made. Today I’ll get to ride a steam train for the first time.
Coal became our savior. God bless coal, God bless water and God bless steam engines. It’s a litany we say every day. Coal heats the water to warm the gardens and our sleeping units. It fuels the trains that are now our only means of travel. Once, we are told, people flew between countries. No one does that any more. Only a few boats remain and they sail to Australia looking for survivors to increase the gene pool—so we’re told.
Mother says that sometime underground living drives people crazy and I guess she means Dad. He’s one of the Carbonites. They worship coal, because all things in life contain carbon, but coal has the most. While we wait for the train I think about my father, turning away so Mother can’t see the tears on my cheeks. As much as I love him I wish he’d just give up all this carbon worship and be my dad again. He ran the water plant for our whole subterranean town—before he got religion.
The Carbonites don’t want the coal in the mountains to be mined. They worship it as a sacred artifact, a part of God. They destroy the heat exchanging plants and blow up the internal aqueducts, convinced we’re using the last pure carbon deposits available to man. If caught by the police they’re digitally marked and thrown out of the Haven areas. This punishment is a death sentence, but they survive out there for years. If they ever return the implants trigger alarms at the portals and once caught they’re thrown out into the nuclear wasteland again. Eventually the radiation kills them, so we’re told.
Through tear-blurred eyes I see our train arrive; a long fat cloud of steam trails behind the shiny black engine as it puffs to a stop, its brakes hissing. A bright red number, 586, gleams on the front of the engine. It fills me with a feeling of kinship. I think it’s a beautiful machine, its shiny, steel body painted black, and its brass pistons gleaming under the station’s lights. It looks like a living thing—a black dragon, hissing and huffing steam; something out of a storybook. I didn’t know trains had numbers, just like me. Mine is tattooed between my shoulder blades. I can only see it in a mirror. Because it’s still healing, it itches. I got it on my last visit to the clinic. I’m relieved they didn’t put it on my chest. I wouldn’t like to look at it every day. Some girls think having a number is something to be proud of. I don’t.
Mother and I find our cabin and take seats against the window, facing each other. Mother puts her bag on the floor between our feet. It has food and extra clothing. We’ll get plenty at the health spa, but she hopes she can give some to Dad, if he makes it. We won’t see much through the windows, only the black tunnel walls, except when the train travels through plastic cocoons, as it crosses rivers and the young glaciers. That’s when I’ll get my first look at the outside world, preparing me for the beauty of Queenstown. Mother says it’s breathtaking. She and Dad went there for their honeymoon because Dad had such a respected position. Lake Whakatipu is where the rich people play, under the domed sky. Not that many rich people are left. They die like everyone else. Mother says being alive is richness in itself
It’s been an early rising and a rush to get here. The rocking of the train and the clackety-clack as it runs over the joints in the tracks makes my eyelids heavy. I struggle to stay awake. I want to see the outside world when we pass through the cocoons, but my eyes refuse to stay open.
I wake later, seeing by my wristband that I’ve slept for two hours and I my heart sinks knowing I have missed the first cocoon views. Mother is reading opposite me and we exchange smiles. I make my excuses as I push past other passengers in our cabin, stepping over their legs and luggage. Those without carriage tickets line the hallways, a warm mass of people, standing in a fug of unpleasant odors. Crying children looking grubby and tired; mothers making soothing noises and look weary. I smother the sharp stab of guilt that pierces me, because as a prime breeder I have a seat and they don’t.
I need to find the Relief Facilities. A guard stops me and checks my ticket to Queenstown. It’s behind the clear panel on my upper arm where our settlement details are engraved.
“First trip, young lady?”
The guard in his silver uniform with black flashes on the sleeve, makes my heart beat faster. He reminds me of the doctors in the assessment clinic who probed and prodded me, took blood samples, scanned my body and declared me ‘fit to breed’. Knowing I have to return when I get my period makes my stomach clench, but mother says having children is a blessing and I shouldn’t be afraid. She will be there to help me. First I need to build up my vitamin D intake.
“Yes, sir, I’m looking forward to my holiday.”
“Do you have your family with you?”
“Just my mother.” My heart trips a little as he scans my arm with his light reader.
“Hmmm. Do you know where your father is?”
Mother has warned me about trick questions from guards and doctors. “No, sir. I hardly remember what he looks like.” This is a lie, so I concentrate on my breathing, keeping it slow and even, hoping his machine won’t pick up a rise in my heartbeat. Of course I know what he looks like, but I need to convince the guard of my disinterest.
“Have a good trip.” When he turns away to question another passenger I hurry on through the rocking carriages to find relief. Now my heart is racing, my palms are sweaty and my nerve ends feel raw. It’s worse than how I felt on my first day at school.
I relieve myself and cross to the old crazed ceramic basins to wash my hands. The soot from the engine has coated everything with a grey film. The disinfectant dispenser is empty. I shudder and turn the tap handle with my elbow, rinse them and wipe my hands on my skirt. In the mirror my corn-row braids need reworking. I have to wear my hair like this now. Stray hairs fall around my face and there are smudges on my cheeks. My eyes are red-rimmed from sleeping, or else the coal dust is making them sore.
The smell of sulphur hangs in the stale air. The cabin is warm and smelly but I’m reluctant to push my way back through the throng of passengers. I stand staring through the window, watching the trails of white steam dash past. Lit by the cabin lights, they break into wisps and disappear. This carriage is at the front of the train, close to the engine. Except for the rocking and clacking you wouldn’t know we’re moving. The black tunnel walls pass like the inside of a chimney, dense and dark without a break in the monotony.
Back in the passage I weave my way back through the mass of bodies. When I hear my name I turn my head instinctively and then realize my mistake. It’s my father’s voice. Up ahead the guard is watching me. I need to tell Dad where we are but the conductor is staring. I swing around, seeing a child next to me, before I look at Dad; recognizing his face, longing to collapse into his arms, yet trying to save his life.
“I’ll tell my mother on you if you pinch me again,” I say to the child, trying to sound indignant. “She’s in cabin sixteen; she’ll fix you.” With my back still to the guard I whisper, “Hello Daddy, I love you.” He smiles and then melts into the people around me and I swing back, my face screwed in anger and rush through the crowd toward the guard, hoping I have done enough to smother any suspicion he might have.
Back in the cabin I reach over to find my e-reader in our bag and I whisper to Mother, that I’ve seen Dad. I wish I’d been able to hug him. He looked gaunt and exhausted. He needs the food we have in the bag. He doesn’t come. Perhaps I could make another trip to the Relief cabin? Would it look suspicious so soon after the first visit? Before I can decide mother excuses herself and leaves the cabin, taking our bag with her. I hope she sees Dad on her way to the Relief Facilities.
She returns a good while later and without comment puts the bag on the floor and picks up her knitting, which she left on the seat. She is knitting baby booties. We don’t know what sex my child will be but if I have one successfully then I will be expected to have more. Mother has spun a hank of very fine yarn from a small bag of merino fleece. Sheep are scarce. They don’t breed well in captivity. These booties may have to do for all my children.
An hour later we are at Queenstown station. I’m blinded by the daylight as we get off the train. No wonder they made us pack sunglasses. At the end of the platform, through the iron railed fence I see the sky is a beautiful blue. I hurry to the fence, dragging mother with me. She laughs. “I remember my first glimpse,” she says, running to keep up.
We grasp the iron rails and peer through. The mountain range is reflected mirror image on the surface of the lake, so breathtaking I hold my breath, thinking I am imagining it. The snow on The Remarkables reflect the sun in a jagged band of blinding white against the sky; just like the postcards. I shut my eyes for a moment and take a deep breath but when I open them the view is the same. It’s not a mirage; it’s a miracle.
We turn at the sound of a shout and a scurry of movement on the platform parts the crowd. I see my father being marched toward us between two guards. I clench my fists and stiffen my arms to prevent myself from reaching out to touch him as they pass. They disappear through a side door. I look at my mother. She is staring ahead, tears streaming down her face and I know it’s not the sunlight hurting her eyes.
Father is wearing a coat from our bag. She found him after all.
Behind us the train begins to move and I turn to watch. A slow hiss from its pistons, followed by puffs of steam from its fat black funnel, and the huge wheels begin to turn, slow as the second hand on the kitchen clock, and then faster and faster. Sadness overwhelms me, knots my throat with a hard lump; it’s like saying goodbye to a friend. Number 586 gathers speed and leaves the station. I’ve read the train circles the lake, to come back to this station before returning northward with a new load of passengers.
In a month we shall ride it again. I will have had my course of vitamin D and will face a future of insemination and motherhood. There is no choice. Breeders are precious. Lineage is important and although my father is about to be cast into the nuclear waste, his genes and mother’s are a good mix. I am fit and healthy without any inherited diseases. The authorities will overlook my father’s religious insanity for the sake of more healthy children, but I know they will watch me in case I go the same way. My father will never know his grandchildren. I may never see him again.
I curse the Carbonites and their fixation. Like zealots throughout time, they destroy families in the name of religion.
Deryn Pittar loves writing sci-fi. She belongs to SpecFicNZ, Tauranga Writers and the Romance Writers of N.Z. She has a Young Adult sci-fi published by Evernight Teens under Deryn Pittar but her sci-fi romance novellas are published under the pen name of Virginnia De Parte.
Deryn is a published poet with a fondness for haiku, a form of poetry requiring a few words to convey a captured moment and she loves the challenge of writing a short story. Her books can be found at www.virginnia-departe-books.com and her poetry can be read at www.derynpittar.tumblr.com. You can follow her on twitter: @VirginniaDeP