February 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Sofia Hurst
Posted March 2022

This story was written for the MSc Science Communication course at Imperial College London, for assessment as part of the Narrative module



Crickets chirp in the aftermath of rain as Atropos makes her way to the ICCC headquarters. She has been called in early, although she is not surprised. Today has all the portents of being significant, she thinks, as parakeets squawk at the rising sun. It is a hundred and fifty years since the Ark Company left for Mars. The rich and powerful, unable to buy themselves sanctuary in the globe’s deteriorating climate, had fled it altogether. But in launching the hundreds of rockets they had stealthily built during the Wars, syphoning money from vulnerable communities, they had released so many emissions into the atmosphere that it precipitated the world into an accelerated Warm-House climate.
They knew, of course; numbers existed before their exodus, standing silently, sentinels to the condemnation of the rest of humanity. Perhaps they’d discussed the consequences of their actions briefly in their gold-plated boardrooms, but had found in favour of destroying humanity while convincing themselves they were saving it. And numbers stood, statuesque, against them in their absence too.
Those left behind, like Atropos, had to deal with the rising waters.

That was the crux of it all; water. Perhaps people should have worshipped Water instead of their fickle Gods. It was Water that gave life, that decided whether people flourished, and, increasingly, when they perished. Then again, Water did not listen to the cries for mercy, nor cared for the bodies of those parched without it or pulled from the sea bloated and purple, and definitely was not inclined to be kind to people who altered its course.
No, they were completely, utterly, radically alone.

In desperation, wars were fought over Water itself. It was liquid when it should have been solid, dry where it should have been humid, abundant where it should have been scarce; torrential rains ravaged cities with no drainage and abandoned those expecting monsoons. The seas rose, dams burst, ice evaporated, aquifers drained. Water had tied humanity to her, tightly binding its very essence to her, and
now subjected humanity to her whims.
Somewhere, the strings tangled. The wisdom of sailors who feared and respected the sea was drowned out by the might of machinery; those who followed the rains hemmed in by imaginary borders. Humanity, in its infinite arrogance, sought to control Water and bend her to its will instead.

But there were greater powers at play; the cyclical predictability of Water ceased to be predictable. The imbalance of atmospheric gases pulled too many threads in the tapestry of civilisation and the whole picture unravelled.
That was why the International Crisis Climate Committee was created, founded on the philosophy of survival and respect for Water in a bid to stem the wars. The biggest threat now was losing the last of the Antarctic ice, a sure way of tipping into the final feedback loop to a truly Hot-House Earth.
If a river changed course, well, people would need to follow. Cities were relocated, ports were moved, crop cycles were changed – governments were overruled and borders disregarded. Emissions of any sort were tightly regulated, and if the wars weren’t enough to deter people, the ICCC would step in themselves. All dreams of maintaining known atmospheric levels had gone up in flames with the exhausts of the Ark Company rockets, but through the death and devastation, humanity was weaving a new picture across the globe.
There were fewer deaths now, even though the weather was ever more violent

Atropos wipes a light sweat from her forehead. It is eight o’clock in the morning, and the humidity has worked up a pleasant dampness on her hairline. She breathes in deeply, feeling the wet air fill her lungs as shards of sunlight shoot through the hanging leaves. Where once olive trees stood proud, now a jungle creeps across the ground. It is the way of things.
Atropos weaves numbers for the ICCC. She has made the tales they reveal her earnest study for forty years, high on the way multiple paths spring forth to her trained eye from the mess of digits. There is an element of power involved in stringing together equations; they tell a part of the story, which she skilfully pulls from them, but there is always an interpretation Atropos must push onto them too.
That is where Atropos takes over control.
She seats herself at her usual place on the large round table of the Heads of the ICCC. A hush descends on the participants as Dr Raven, chief of communications, stands. He is silent for a moment, collecting himself as the crickets outside swell in chorus.
“Thank you for joining me this morning. I called you here because last night we received this message…” he says gravely. A screen shudders to life behind him; a blonde man is in the frame, wearing a white garment rimmed with gold, the image of a large ark sewn onto the right breast.

“Greetings from Rocket Noah 1,” he starts in a strange accent. “Our conquest of Mars is successful and we require replenished resources. Clean water, seeds, bees, and various metals, for which I have included a specific itinerary. We expect the required items ready for our arrival and a supply of ten additional rockets for the fleet back to Mars. We are keen to inspect any remaining Earthen strongholds during rocket loading times. 
Fruitful tidings,
Captain of Noah 1.”

Time seems to pause. Even the crickets outside have quieted down as the words of the Noah 1 sink into the skin of those around the table. Above them, the large screen flickers to an unsteady black, awaiting input.
Atropos is the first to break the silence. She clears her throat lightly, drawing all eyes to her. “How many rockets are en route?” she asks, stringing together some calculations.
“At least forty,” replies Dr Raven, his eyes tightening fractionally.
“Re-usable?”
“Yes.”
“Hmm…” she trails off, frowning. “It will mean emissions upon arrival as well as departure then.” A huge amount, too, she thinks – the counterforce necessary to cushion a landing so as to be reusable is tremendous.
General Athena’s chair scratches across the terracotta floor as she stands.
“We have three options for the ICCC to take,” she starts imperiously, hands clasping behind her rigid back. “One, we adhere to the… demands… of Noah 1, working immediately to fulfil them and allowing the Ark to survive another century and a half. Two, we allow the current fleet to land, taking the hit on the landing
emissions, but restrain them here, thus foregoing exit emissions and loss of resources. Or three…” she pauses, taking a long breath, then continues quietly, “or three, we intercept them en route, preventing them from reaching Earth.”

***

A clock somewhere ticks approximately five seconds before the room explodes into chaos.
It seems everybody apart from Atropos is trying to say something, even if they themselves don’t know what exactly they are trying to say. It feels as if something should be said at any rate, but Atropos’ head is filled with the screaming of the numbers taking shape in front of her.
She follows one thread, and then another; she factors in one variable, then replaces it, slowly building up a vision of the consequences.
A fraction of a degree, though, means hundreds of cities flooded, and she must be precise if she is to uncover everything her equations are straining to make her see.
“You are wrong,” she chimes finally, her authoritative voice ringing out clearly over the cacophony of the council members. “You are wrong, General. These supplies will not keep them for the next hundred and fifty years. If they require them now, with their projected population increase it will be less than seventy years before they need the same amount again. And less again after that.”
The General’s face hardens.
“And,” continues Atropos, “the collective emissions for landing forty rockets and departing fifty are equivalent to our next five year global emissions budget. That is without factoring in the production and transport of the resources themselves.”

Perhaps it is unfair to present the numbers in such a damning way thinks Atropos as the room again surges into discussion. She could take more time, see where Earth’s emissions can be cut to maintain balance.
But she knows it will cause more conflict, more hardship, for those who were knowingly left to perish by the Ark Company all those years ago. Their numbers were flawed however, as they did not take into account how humanity could change, could survive.
Likewise, now she chooses to read this new story in her numbers and share it with the members of the council. Was it fear? Perhaps.
The return of the Martians was a snag that threatened to unravel the tight control they had all over again. But was she prepared to sacrifice forty rockets on Gaia’s altar for their continued survival?

“We cannot just leave them to die!” cries Mr Eleos, disturbing her introspection, his mousy features blotchy with emotion.
“Well they left us to die!” hisses Nemesis.
“No! Their forefathers did! It has been a hundred and fifty years, these are innocent people who have come to us asking for help -”
“There was no asking involved! They demanded—”
“As if they’re entitled to anything we have—”
“The sheer audacity of such a thing! Well I never—”
“Where were they when we lost a billion people to the floods —”
“I’m sure they’ve had their own hardships—”
“Not that we’d know! No communication at all! They could have tried—”
One voice remains unusually taciturn. Professor Chronos, the historian, would have made an excellent priest had he a God to preach about. As it stood, his worship was for the secrets of the past, which he lectured about with gusto.
But in this instance he sits still, staring unseeingly in front of him with a slight
frown. His lips quiver, as if speaking urgently to a ghost.
“What do you think Professor?” asks Mr Eleos desperately, drawing attention to the man.
Chronos blinks twice, refocusing on the room and glances around nervously. “I think… it doesn’t make sense.” All other threads of conversation peter out to listen to him. “Why would the Ark Company only provision for one hundred and fifty years? It is too perfect for it to have been an accident. One hundred and fifty years precisely? We never could work out exactly what new technology they were relying
on to perpetuate the colony forever…”
Murmurs start from a few different people, but mostly confused glances are exchanged.


Atropos’ eyes widen. It feels as if a new pattern has emerged from her models, thrust into the light by the Professor’s comments; as if loose ends were suddenly revealed to be integral parts of the whole after all.
She finds the Professor’s eyes on hers and knows she has reached his same conclusion.

“There was no new technology, was there? One hundred and fifty years ago our best models predicted an utter collapse of civilisation, the planet becoming too hostile for humanity. We lost billions, but we were predicted to lose billions more. By now we should have been mostly decimated, with small, patchy communities spread across the globe. In other words, the world should have been swept clean,
free for the taking.”
General Athena chuckles darkly, still standing and leaning heavily on the table with two outstretched hands. “Strategically it is sound,” she says softly, dangerously, “yank one strand and suffocate the rest of us slowly. Then rape Earth for everything she’s worth and transport it back to Mars. They must have sent probes out to scout a landing spot and instead realised we are still here.”
Atropos stands. She flicks her long, grey plait over her shoulder and sets her shoulders back.
“Members of the council, I believe you all know what we must do.”

She makes eye contact with each and every member as she walks to the front of the room, stepping into the pool of light that floods through the window as the sun breaks through the treeline. She waves on the transmitter.
The static flares to life.

Earth to Noah 1.
Permission to land denied.

Atropos hits the button to relay the messages, and with a short, sharp snap, they are
gone.


Sofia Hurst is the Deputy News Editor at I,Science, and is currently a student on the Science Communication Masters here at Imperial College London.