Amoeba’s Lorica: The Thread On Which It Hangs

A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.

Wayne woke with a poke. Actually, a stab, like with a pin tipped with acid, on the back of his right shoulder. It was the middle of a moonless night, and pitch black; he could see nothing. But he didn’t need to see to know what had happened. It had happened enough since he’d been out here, he knew the drill by now. A centipede had bitten him.

“Karma, dammit,”, he muttered. “They know damned well that if I could see and catch the buggers, I’d smash ’em, pull off their damned pincers, and eat ’em. Tasty they ain’t, but they’re a lot better than nothing.” His stomach panged in sympathy with his shoulder. He wanted a wet washcloth to wipe the bitten area and at least take some of the acid burning away. But he had neither washcloth nor water. As if he could have found them if he had, in the dark. Regretfully, he settled himself back down on the patch of gritty lava sand that served for a bed, in his home at the entrance to an old, forgotten lava tube high on Hawai‘i Island’s Hualalai mountain, and dozed fitfully, waiting for morning.

At last, it came, cloudless and bright. Wayne cursed again. Water would have to wait until late in the afternoon, when the sea breeze drove clouds up the side of the mountain and squeezed rain from them. If there was a sea breeze. If there were clouds. He could see the last of his fruit stash from his foraging, two days ago: an orange and a strawberry guava. He greedily devoured both. He looked for centipedes, found none, of course. He would have to venture out today.

He clambered out of the lava tube, brushed the grit off what was left of his clothing. He visited his latrine spot, more out of habit than necessity. He managed a tinkle. He half-walked, half-staggered to his vantage point, a lightly-forested outcrop of the mountainside overlooking what had been the settlement of Kailua Kona.

The town was silent, without lights or motorized vehicles. But it was not dead, as the scattering of sailboats on the wide (“doubly large”) bay (kai lua) made clear. Subsistence fishing. And probably, too small for him to see at this height and distance, foragers on the shore, for shellfish and seaweed. Many of the larger buildings, the hotels, shopping centers, the court house, had become de-roofed or otherwise visibly fallen in, and others, especially in what had been clusters of condominiums or homes, had been cleared, to make room for the grass shacks that were far more appropriate domiciles for a world without air conditioning or native permanent building materials, or for the growing of the few terrestrial crops that the Kona desert would support.

As the sun rose over the crest of Hualalai, a blast of light bounced off what looked like mirrors in the glare. Solar panels. The grass shacks had Wifi, Wayne thought, bitterly. Probably to tell their relatives back home in China how wonderful life is on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.

A tear formed in Wayne’s eye. He cursed his weakness, jabbed a fingertip at the corner, collected the drop, sucked on it. How long ago was it? Years, decades, centuries? He counted moons on his fingers, couldn’t come up with two dozen, almost cried again.

He had carried his tablet, showing the latest press releases touting world-saving advances in the blue economy, to an elder colleague in the same office. Bryan (his name) took the device, dutifully skimmed the propaganda, then, with a half-scowl, half-sigh, returned it to Wayne, and said, “I miss paper.”

“Why?” Wayne asked.

Bryan’s reply was suddenly savage. “So I could rip that trash into a thousand pieces and toss it to the skies! Where it might eventually fall to earth and serve some useful purpose as mulch for the crops! I don’t think you’d like it much if I did that to your iPad.”

“You’d be right about that. You have something against hope that we might be able to do something about climate change?”

Bryan snarled his way through his response. “I have something against self-serving lies about climate change! Everybody who has a brain larger and more functional than a pistachio knows we have a problem. And everybody, of course, has a nice, profitable, personal-yacht-enabling solution to the problem, if only everybody else will throw money at them! I’m sorry, I’m not that smart. All I can do is look at the data – including the data that tell us, with all the economic disaster that the COVID mess has delivered unto us, we’ve made a whopping 6% dent in our carbon emissions. And generated a whole pile of people who are predicting our impending entry into a new ‘roaring 20s’, in which, all this ‘blue economy’ nonsense notwithstanding, we’ll blow away that 6% reduction like it wasn’t even there.

“Wayne, you idiot! The only way we’re going to get this carbon stuff under control by the end of the century is by reducing the human population, by the end of this decade, to the levels of the late 18th century – about the current population of the People’s Republic of China – and reduce the survivors to the living standards of the late 18th century. That’s how I see the facts. About which you’re going to hear nothing, because that’s not – your words – hope. Hope – which means nobody’s going to make any money off the facts, so the facts are going to be suppressed. And if somebody tries to insist on the facts? Can you say ‘second coming of Trump?’ We can’t even get the COVID vaccine out there without fine upstanding citizens getting in the way. Speaking of ripping up paper. The only way we’re getting out of this climate mess is through an act of God. Or an act of war, which amounts to the same thing. You got anything useful to share with me?”

Only a week later, all hell broke loose. What happened exactly was hard to figure out, because one of the first things to go was the communications network, but Wayne eventually pieced together a story. In a coup for Chinese military and commercial intelligence, hackers gained access to the command control centers for the world’s nuclear arsenals, and set them all off at once. Neutron weapons were targeted at military bases and population centers, killing people while leaving structures and the environment minimally impacted, while higher-yield bombs were shot into space and detonated, destroying even the most hardened of electronics. The human population of O‘ahu, with its military bases and major city (Honolulu), was wiped out.

The Hawaiian ‘neighbor islands’, which thought that they had been suffering from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, quickly became acquainted with the consequences of an authentic, sudden, and complete collapse of commerce. On Hawai‘i Island, feral cattle and pigs were quickly wiped out, while the stock on ranches was slaughtered and distributed lest the ranches be stormed, the ranchers killed, and the animals wasted. Rice, potato (including ‘uala), maize, and flour stocks were soon exhausted, and the locals abruptly recognized the disadvantages of trying to survive on their principal local crops: coffee and chocolate. Shoreline resources, including fish, shellfish, and seaweed, already under strong human pressure, quickly became rare, and fights broke out over shoreline access. Some of these fights became semi-organized pitched battles. The few motor-powered boats that survived the nuclear attack (their engines being old enough to be able to operate without onboard computers or other electronics) soon succumbed to lack of fuel, or to mobs.

Thus, when Chinese hospital ships appeared in Kailua Bay, promising relief supplies, the desperate West Hawai‘i populace thronged the shores, begging for their help. Wayne, hungry and desperate as he was, somehow smelled a rat and moved away from the crowds, foraging as he went. It was a lucky choice. What the crowds didn’t know was that a strong force of Chinese marines had disembarked at Kawaihae, north of Kailua Kona, and had encircled the village; Wayne was outside the circle when it closed. These troops moved in without warning and exterminated everyone within the circle. The hospital ships actually contained the first wave of settlers who now lived in the grass shacks and sailed the seas in search of the remaining fish.

Wayne returned to the present, sighed. “Eighteenth century population levels, at eighteenth century standards of liv …”

A helicopter!

Wayne heard it before he saw it (“thank God!”), and scurried out of sight. Just in time, for it roared overhead, seemingly at treetop level. It was moving quickly, so it didn’t seem to be seeking out random refugees like himself …

Then, Wayne saw the smoke, a wisp on the mountainside half a dozen miles north of where he lay hidden. “Some pack of stupid haoles must’ve caught a pig, and were trying to cook it”, he mused. “Morons! It’ll be the last thing they ever do.”

The gunship proceeded to demonstrate. It pivoted over the smoke wisp in ever-tightening circles, pouring machine-gun and cannon fire into the area for at least ten minutes. Then, it backed away, and fired four rockets into the space, which burst into a fireball at least ten times larger than seemed to be necessary for the mission at hand. That task completed, the helicopter zoomed northwards, towards its undoubted base at the former Keahole international airport. Leaving behind a baby inferno.

“Well, they’ve not managed to burn down the island yet”, Wayne concluded. “Must mean that they know that rain is coming.” His right arm shook violently, almost uncontrollably. He stifled the shaking, looked at the sticks that were what his arm and fingers had become. “And not a moment too soon. And it won’t matter a whit if I don’t get cracking with that foraging.”

He moved unsteadily downslope, towards the orchards and feral fruit trees at the lower levels. He hoped that they weren’t too heavily guarded. Or, maybe, that they were. After all, that pack of yahoos that the gunship had wiped out didn’t have to worry about foraging, or anything else, any more.

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