We Are Fuel

Jack Caseros

May 22, 2018

We’re excited to share the winners of our We Shall Arrive Soon writing contest with you. Our judge, Erin Bow, has selected the first, second and third place winners. In third place, here is “We Are Fuel” by Jack Caseros.

# # #

When the emergency notification pinged on my tablet, we had eight minutes.

“What’s this?” Sabadís asked as the notification shaded out the three dimensional model of a caribou.

A major coronal mass ejection has been observed. In 8 minutes…

I didn’t bother clicking the ellipsis to read more. I swiped left to return to the caribou.

“So I really put my finger up its butt?” I asked, incredulous at the instructions I was being provided to dress a caribou in the field.

“It’s just one way,” Sabadís smiled, his tongue squeezing through tooth gaps “When it’s cold, you’ll be thankful to have somewhere to warm your hands.”

He was laughing, a low wheeze that forced him to rise from the only bed in the four-room house that served as hospice, hospital, and rehab centre for Fort Providence, NWT. As he moved I reminded him that it was best to stay restful. For Sabadís, eighty years on the tundra had made him anything but restful. Bedrest was more of a death sentence than his diagnosis.

I was technically his nurse, but since Sabadís was tethered to life support and his family had moved south, I became a stand-in grandson. In the evenings I left him until last, bringing my tablet so we could talk about things outside his room’s eggshell walls. Things like fishing, hunting, medicinal salves. These things didn’t exist anymore. But I had an app for that.

“Maybe you need some practice with your finger?” Sabadís asked as I tried to spin the caribou on the unresponsive screen.

“No service,” I said.

“Spoiled!” Sabadís laughed again, touching his chest. “Everything you need to know is right here.”

I remembered the emergency notification:

A major coronal mass ejection has been observed. In 8 minutes, communications, GPS, and electrical systems are expected to fail. Prepare to seek shelter as per local emergency plans.

***

Within eight minutes, the electromagnetic shockwave of the sun’s ejection reaches the satellites which tinsel the Earth’s orbit. In the next minute, the planet’s magnetosphere compresses on its sunny side and lengthens on the other. An aurora washes over the Earth, visible in the tropics and bright enough further north that roosters crow, believing it’s already morning.

The shockwave is strong enough to overload power transmission lines. Power stations explode. The internet goes dark. The technology humanity has come to depend on is rendered completely useless.

Despite warnings from physicists, back-up systems were never installed. Outages will last for six months in the most fortunate regions. In others, stability will never return.

***

In Fort Providence, we were used to the power going out. The lights flickered before the emergency generator kicked on. While Sabadís’ monitoring equipment reset, I checked on the other patients.
Sabadís was sitting up when I returned. His cords and tubes were taut behind him.

“We’re okay,” I told him. “Some kind of solar storm.”

“That’s no regular aurora,” he said.

He was right. The entire sky was filled with sheets upon sheets of flapping lights.

We had fuel for three days. After the second day, relatives took the other patients southward, convinced the north had been forgotten about yet again.

As the generator chugged through its last litre of diesel, an electric SUV with peeling Government of Canada stickers rolled up to the hospital.

A dozen years ago, as mines emptied out, the government partnered with Canadian universities to launch a project to pilot innovative northern communities. An abandoned copper mine was renovated to house computer servers that otherwise required massive air conditioners in California. Aboveground, geothermal energy and solar panels powered the servers also a village where researchers lived off the land and made their living on the internet. Word was that they were breaking boundaries in energy generation, communications, quantum entanglement. But when sea levels rose and money had to be put into making St. John’s and Vancouver diked fortresses, their funding was cut. That was about the time when I had applied for a job as a medic for the village.

They never returned my call.

“Where’s your airstrip?” asked the driver, who introduced himself as Jay. “Or did they already leave?”

I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were. Jay was in a huff and didn’t mind explaining.

“Of course. They stop funding us, damn near forget about us…then things go sideways and they’re back begging for help.”

Tee rolled her eyes at her partner from the passenger side. “At least they’re finally taking us seriously.”

I would have loved to find out more, but I heard beeping, followed by silence, which ended with wheezing. It was Sabadís—the generator had died, along with his life support equipment.

When his ventilator hissed to a stop, I knew Sabadís had five minutes until his oxygen-starved brain started losing functionality.

“We can help,” Tee said.

“You have fuel?” I asked.

“We are fuel,” Jay answered.

From their SUV, they unloaded a cage which unfolded into the size of an office cubicle. They donned suits armoured with polished stones which made rainbows as they caught the sunlight. They entered the cage, bowed to one another, then windmilled their arms in synch.

They started moving the rest of their bodies too—always mirrored, within centimetres of each other but never touching. Their suits started to hum. The porch light that had been on when the power cut out flicked back on, so I ran back inside.

The ventilator was whirring back to life. It started slowly, then increased as the rest of the machinery blinked and beeped on. There was a roar of a plane overhead—a Hercules military plane, probably realizing our airstrip was too small.

As the plane circled and the cage outside hummed louder and louder, the centre line of Sabadís’ heart monitor jumped. Then it jumped again, taller and longer. Then again. And again.

# # #

Erin Bow’s notes
In the gripping opening of “We Are Fuel,” an incoming Carrington-scale solar flare leaves the Earth with just minutes left in the age of power and communication. The protagonist here is in Canada’s North, which offers both drama and a chance to reflect on our current energy economy — where the North is a source of resources, and little more.

About the author
Jack Caseros is a writer and environmental scientist who has come to call Saskatchewan home. He’s an Assistant Fiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and is also studying novel writing online at Stanford. When he isn’t writing or reading, he enjoys being a live-in Muppet for his daughters, Zoey & Lucy. Find Jack on Twitter @JackCaseros.

About Erin Bow
Erin Bow is a physicist turned poet turned author of young adult novels that will make you cry on the bus. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.