The Unquiet Planet
The Unquiet Planet
The Unquiet Planet
History of Moonlight
Our World Apocrypha
The Unquiet Planet
by Bryan Miller
The Unquiet Planet
by Bryan Miller
The old Luddite woman was dead.
I never imagined she still had the strength to rise from her cot. I didn’t hear her until she’d shuffled outside the shack up to the edge of the menacing tree line.
“Wait!” I shouted after her. I surprised myself to find, even after all this time alone together, trapped in our envelopes of mutual solitude, there was something I wanted to say to her. Nothing she wanted to hear.
The old Luddite woman and I spent these last many days together, endless days, uncountable now, in silence. We wordlessly ate hardtack bread and the contents of the supply tins we gutted with our lone can opener. We rarely made eye contact. Sometimes I caught her glancing at me in my peripheral vision. Other times, while she slept, I stared at her, radiating hatred for everything she’d done. Like I could fill her up with my loathsome thoughts through osmosis. I would happily have left her there alone, even if we were the only two people left in the world. But there was no place else to go.
Maybe it was easier to tell myself what happened was her fault, that it wouldn’t have happened anyway.
Now, apparently, she had something left to say to me.
“I’m tired,” she shouted, even as the silhouettes of the trees bent toward her. Her voice was raspy with weeks of not speaking. “I did what I had to. I don’t need to see it through. Tired. You’ll see, though. I want you to see. Just so one person knows. That’s plenty.”
“You’re insane!” I croaked at her. My throat was ragged. My brain too. For a moment I considered running after her, hurling myself into the same inevitable death just for spite. She must have known by now that I couldn’t, not if I’d hung on this long. Where I had desperation, she had patience.
“It wasn’t for us,” she called back to me. “None of it! It never was!” Then she stepped into the trees until she was just a gauzy outline of frizzy hair and tattered robe.
The black forest came for her more suddenly and savagely than I expected. The branches craned down for her and the roots rose up to drag her feet into the hungry ground. She was a shadow, then pieces of a shadow, and then she was gone.
I suppose I thought the forest might grant her some special deference. I was wrong about that too.
And was I also wrong—was it wishful thinking souring into mania?—or, deep in the tangle of the dead trees’ black limbs, did I spot a blaze of green? The verdant fire of something new?
But let’s not start here. Let’s start before, just after the end.
* * *
We all knew the planet was dying. Even the deniers were forced to concede—what deniers remained after the oceans baptized islands and windstorms sanded away coastal fringes and firestorms smeared the Midwest smudgy black. Rivers changed course, redrew borders. Bees vanished. Most wild animals disappeared: first the mammals, then the reptiles. Temperatures plunged, skyrocketed.
Governments reorganized themselves accordingly. We invented new routines and new bad habits. We created a patch for each new hole in the natural order until we convinced ourselves we could adapt to anything. We didn’t have to change our lives, merely update them.
Then the planet died.
Over the course of two weeks, Earth turned chilly and colorless. The ocean currents subsided; the surface of the Atlantic and Pacific alike became as glassy-flat as a marble tabletop. The soil faded to a grainy gray. The remaining trees blanched; their leaves blackened on the branches but would not fall. The sun still circled us, but warily, and now its light cycles seemed to have less effect on the temperature, which hovered in the pallid fifties beneath a perpetually clouded sky.
Then everything started to rot.
Dishwater-gray ichor leaked from the peeling trunks of the trees, which bulged with pockets of beetles and maggots. Tacky, cool slime oozed down the sagging faces of cliffs. Stone turned limp and rubbery. Rocks split open like molding fruit. Flocks of birds dwindled, then disappeared from the sky altogether, except for the spiraling buzzards who grew fat and emboldened. Soggy patches like bedsores pocked the grassless ground, where what little oil remained below burbled and farted to the surface. The stale air sharpened with a fungal reek. Clouds of blackflies reveled in the pungent mist.
Then something in the putrescence began to change.
The soil shifted of its own accord. Not the rolling, subterranean spine-crackle of an earthquake. More like muscle spasms. The trees began moving too, despite their black leaves hanging perfectly limp in the windless sky. The curling limbs flexed their many-knuckled branches. Tendrils of soft, rotting wood clenched into knotty fists. The ocean began vomiting up the stripped corpses of titanic creatures only theorized to exist in the pressurized depths. This should have been impossible, of course, since there was no tide. Their bones scattered the motionless beaches with arcane fractal patterns.
That’s why the general summoned me to the Army Corps of Engineers field base in the foothills of New Idaho. Not to save the planet—to kill it.
* * *
Camp Ritter was a skeletal network of interconnected buildings shoving out of the side of a craggy hill not quite big enough to qualify as a mountain. Each building was raised off the ground by a series of reinforced metal struts as prevention against flash flooding and landslides. The walkways between the buildings were elevated as well.
The base felt incredibly roomy to me. The shifting climate had forced the surviving population to clot together in densely packed cities that built vertically within their barriers against weather disasters. I’d lived elbow-to-elbow like everyone else. Even though Camp Ritter was fully staffed, it was remote, a thirty-minute chopper ride outside Boise, snug up against the side of one of the country’s largest Luddite reservations. I had my own modest private barracks on the second level of a three-story building with a picture window overlooking the Rez.
Not that I had much time to enjoy the room. The moment I arrived one soldier ferried away my rucksack while another escorted me straight to the general’s office down the main hall from the command center. He waited behind his desk across from the Army Chief of Engineers, who sat with architecturally perfect posture. The baggy-eyed general looked almost as bad as the planet itself.
As of now, he explained, life in the cities could carry on as usual. The new usual, anyway. Greenhouse and hydroponic crops had not succumbed to the rot that killed everything physically planted in the ground. The air filters kept everyone’s hermetically sealed homes and offices oxygenated. Citizens could still safely traverse the pavement.
But, he went on, the levels on the water recyclers diminished slightly with each successive cycle. Over time the strain on the water supply, plus the lack of new organic materials, would hinder the replenishment of indoor gardens and eventually even lab-grown meat.
“These are all measurable shortages, but you’re equivocating,” I said, clearly irritating the General. “Either you have a timeline, or you’re leaving something out.”
The Chief of Engineers glowered at me. I’ve never been great at regulating my thoughts. They just come tumbling out of my mouth. That’s why I like engineering. There are no awkward statements, just mathematical truths.
“The shortages are a secondary concern,” the General said through a clenched jaw. He cued up a video screen built into the wall. “It’s the unmeasurable phenomena we need to address.”
The wall screen flashed to grainy surveillance footage of a tiny patch of parkland in some nameless city. A traffic sign in the background was in English. A man strolled along a dirt median next to a pair of trees, taking foggy puffs off a vape pen. He didn’t see the black leaves shifting behind him, or the one gnarled branch unfurl until it clasped him from behind. When he spun around, the second tree reached for him. In a matter of seconds they had him tangled, pinned, and then it was as if the ground itself was accepting him into it. Dusty soil boiled around him as he thrashed for a few useless second. Legs, torso, head. He was gone.
“There are more videos like these,” the general said. “We’re trying to keep them under wraps right now. As you can imagine, this significantly accelerates our timeline.”
It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
“My concern is that I’m not sure what I can do,” I said, “since I specialize in the life of ecosystems. But the planet is not alive. Not anymore. It’s closer to undea—”
“Unquiet,” the general corrected me. “That’s what we’re calling it.”
“Right, but you could also say that the whole planet is a kind of zo—”
“Un. Quiet. And starting tomorrow morning at dawn, I’m going to need you to find a way to quiet it.”
The duty officer stationed outside the door walked me back to my room, where I found my rucksack huddled at the foot of my bed. I switched off the lights and gazed out the window onto the Luddite reservation. I’d heard about these rural zones, but I’d never seen one in person. They were part of a compromise the government struck with citizens who refused to participate in face-recognition and bio-implantation programs that had become coded into every system from federal ID databases to fast-food purchases. The technophobic few who opted out of the new societal structures were relocated to far-flung government land considered too near disaster zones for significant habitation. The Luddites complied, for lack of a better option. I wondered how many of them regretted their choice now, sheltered in the sinister forest.
Then I spotted a figure moving outside through an open swath of ground behind a sparse copse of trees shifting listlessly on their roots. The figure stooped low, walking with a hitch but no hurry, right across the hungry soil. It occurred to me, I should go down and warn them. Did they understand the danger all around them? Instead I watched the figure stoop over a solitary, flickering campfire until sleep’s gravity pulled me back onto my Army-issue mattress.
* * *
The collection of experts gathered with me around the long conference table the following day did not inspire confidence. Individually, everyone’s expertise was dazzling: biologist, mining engineer, physicist, geologist, on and on. But the breadth of specializations struck me as haphazard, desperate. This was Team Longshot. The bags under their eyes, the rising cowlicks in their unkempt hair, the missed buttons on their shirts all told a grim story.
The general told a grimmer one.
“Russia tried a nuke.”
“I said we should go nuclear,” the geologist said.
The general waived him off with a rueful flick of the hand. “Well, they put their fattest available payload into the side of a mountain in Belukha. A patch of ground three miles wide turned to black sludge. Maybe more uninhabitable than it was before the blast. The photos look like someone kicked a hole in the side of a cow’s carcass.”
“Did the radiation affect the trees around the perimeter of the blast?” the Chief asked.
“Not at all.”
The chemical engineer shook her head in disgust. “We have to take another shot at experimenting with acid-base compounds to destabilize the soil.”
“Re-deaden,” I corrected.
“Whatever,” she went on, “we haven’t fully explored the potential—”
“The problem is, we’re all scientists,” I said. “As an environmental engineer, the one thing I can tell you is this situation breaks with every conceivable law of environmental science. We’ve exhausted it. Now we’re looking at a new problem with an old paradigm.”
“What paradigm is that?” the general asked.
“The foundations of logic.”
The arborist nodded her head softly, but otherwise my colleagues brushed past my argument. Practical action, that’s what we needed, they said, although I didn’t recall advocating complacency.
The team moved toward a begrudging acceptance of my position later in the evening, when the general walked into the situation room with his poker face shattered. He broke the latest news from India, near the Kashmir region.
A city disappeared. No audio or video footage existed of its destruction. One satellite photo showed it there, the next gone, its massive footprint replaced with an expanse of freshly churned gray soil.
The mining engineer began to weep. The biologist squeezed his shoulder.
“Then there’s this,” the general muttered.
The wallscreen honeycombed into rows of individual images. They each looked like dark, misshapen rubies pressed into the chalky soil.
“That,” the general said, “is blood. A few hours after the city disappeared, all the dried lakebeds filled up with it.”
* * *
Later that night I found myself staring out at the dark forest again, plotting its murder, when once more the slow-moving figure crept through the enclosed patch of ground, beyond the reach of the grabbing trees.
They needed to be warned.
That’s what I told myself as I hustled to the command center to requisition an all-terrain vehicle in the middle of the night. Procedure dictated I needed an escort to leave the base, but no one was willing to drive with me in the dark toward the sentient forest. The supply clerk wouldn’t sign me out, nor officially lend me the glorified go-cart they called a dune buggy. If I didn’t return from my unscheduled late-night rendezvous there would be no record of my disappearance.
I can’t remember breathing during my drive across the dead soil. I must have. All I can recall is feeling every jounce of the tires over ground that might at any second open wide. As I neared the little inlet I could discern a subtle difference in the soil there. It was ashier. More importantly, it was still.
A mismatched assemblage of wooden and metal artifacts jutted from the ground all around the small patch of habitable earth. Some I recognized—crosses, icons of saints, the Star of David, ankhs—and many others I did not. The buried symbols etched a circle around the powdery ground and traced a path to the edge of the forest, where a lamplit shack jammed itself in amongst the trees. These trees were different, though. They didn’t tear at the wooden shingles or snatch at the doorway. They were stiff as ... well, as trees were supposed to be, perhaps owing to their garish decorations of rosaries, crucifixes, and amulets. Fat Buddhas crouched in the crooks of branches. Votive candles burned in knotholes.
Seated in front of the shack, before a stinking pile of dead tree limbs smoldering over a glowing brazier, was the figure from the woods. An old Luddite woman with spiderwebs of white hair. She wore at least four layers of robes and dressing gowns. Her frail hands looked as gnarled as the surrounding trees.
“Excuse me,” I said, and took a careful step off the buggy onto what I hoped was solid ground.
She told me to piss off. She never looked up from the fire.
“I’m here to warn you.”
“Do I look like I need warning?”
Up close, the Luddite woman’s watery green eyes flickered with conspiratorial glee. Her heavily lined face was handsome, with high cheekbones and Cheshire lips. She carried herself with a poise that the crook in her spine could only partly conceal.
“I just saw you here on the ground, so close to the trees. Everywhere else people are saying it’s not safe. They’re right.” When she didn’t respond, I added, “I’m an engineer with the Army.”
“Having a bad time of it out there, are they?” The old woman chuckled. “But it’s getting strange. Sure is straaaange.” She sang the last part, a fragment of a song I half-remembered.
“The planet’s died,” I said.
The Luddite straightened up as best she could. She propped her elbows on her robe-draped knees to face me. “It’s more than that.”
“I know. I’ve been trying to tell them. I’m a scientist, but we’re beyond science now. Whatever it is you’ve done here—what have you done? Are there others? Are they still alive?”
“The other Luddites.”
The woman’s face puckered.
“I’m not fond of that term. Does it make me a Luddite just because I don’t want to be complicit in your bullshit world? Even now that it’s all crumbling around you, you still think I’m the one you should call names.”
“Not very sociable, are you? I’m a hermit and you’re the rude one.”
“What is your name?” I asked. I told her mine.
“If I wanted you to know my name, I’d give it to you.” She spat into the hissing fire.
“Really, I apologize. But your friends, the others who shun technology in the reservation deeper in the woods, are they still alive?”
“They’re not my friends. And I doubt anything is alive in those woods. That’s true most places I’d bet. Not knowing what’s going on elsewhere is one of the great privileges of living here. Take your news updates someplace else.”
“The cities are still functioning,” I went on anyway. “But there’s not much time. That’s why I’m working with the Army. Only we’re nowhere near a solution, so what you’ve done here, if you could help me understand. Maybe there’s something I could do for you?”
Those green eyes danced again. One thinning white eyebrow crooked toward the murky sky. The Luddite woman sighed. She made a number of other, less pleasant noises as she struggled to her feet. She bade me to follow her to her tiny house with a backwards wave of one trembling hand.
The one-room shack looked twice as small on the inside. The walls on all four sides were stacked floor to ceiling with boxes, teetering stacks of old books, shelves lined with antique trinkets. It was as though she’d built an igloo of junk inside a spacious outhouse. Russian nesting sheds. To the right was a small table sat with a single high-backed chair, and to the left a cot topped with a feather-stuffed mattress leaking fuzzy white. The space between them formed a narrow path that spread out a little along the far wall, which had a wash basin on one side and a fireplace on the other fitted with a cookstove. Next to the small hearth, a diminished larder of assorted canned vegetables in metal-topped mason jars.
And everywhere more trinkets and religious icons.
“You’re the only one of them who ever came out here,” she said, almost like an accusation. “All those years. Even these last weeks. Not one of them from the base ever came here once.”
“It seemed like my duty to warn you,” I said. It was the same thing I’d told myself, to excuse the truth of my ignoble curiosity.
“I was a theology professor,” the woman said. She leaned against the chair and studied her shed, as if for the first time. “Before they relocated me here, which, truthfully, was mostly quite pleasant.”
I strained to avoid mentioning that the room had no toilet.
“I studied all of this. Never really believed any of it. Or maybe I believed in all of it, just a little bit.”
“What’s that?” I pointed to what looked like a Hebrew Star of David with too many angles.
“That’s a Baha’i nine-pointed star. It’s Persian.” She traced a crooked line in the air with her crooked finger. “And that’s a Shinto Torii. A Kemetic Eye of Heru. That lovely little curlicued symbol is a Druid Triskelion. That’s one of my favorites.”
I examined the strange shapes, which cast arcane shadows in the lamplight. A whole cosmology of beliefs reduced to flickering pidgin code.
“So what you’ve done out there with the ground and the trees, is it some special combination of symbols? Is there an order, a sequence?”
The woman shrugged. “When I saw what was happening, I started placing the totems around me. For decoration, maybe. Tribute? I have no shortage of free time. Seemed like the thing to do. I read a lot of these”—she gestured to stacks of ancient-looking books—“I said I guess what you’d call prayers.”
“But you could do it again?” My voice was pinched with insistence.
“And why would I?”
I glanced down at her meager larder. “I could arrange to have more food brought over here. Loads of it from the mess hall pantry.”
She traced the loops of a Triskelion on the dust settled atop the lid of an emerald-tinted jar of beans.
“And for everyone,” I added. “So we can find a way to still exist on Earth. Whatever it has become.”
The shadow of something like a smile darkened the lines of her face. She nodded.
“I think I could show you something.”
* * *
That’s how, days later, I came to be standing on a patch of numbed earth with the old Luddite woman, watching a fleet of government vehicles descend into battle with truckloads of handcrafted relics and icons.
Convincing the general turned out to be easy. Desperation among the top brass had reached a jaw-clenched panic. I assume the commanders knew more than they let on, and that everything they knew was bad.
They did tell us that several more cities around the world vanished. A volcano in British Columbia belched out gouts of clotted black muck that coated an entire outpost and sent an uncontrollable carrion funk coursing through their dying air filtration system. Oxygenators everywhere sputtered as they struggled to keep pace. The alarm at this latest, strangest environmental catastrophe was fomenting into a frenzy.
The beleaguered General listened to the Luddite woman’s outlandish suggestions. He kept a neutral expression and scribbled a page of notes he passed along to the Chief of Engineers. Later, the General personally oversaw the delivery of food to her shack, mostly so he could see for himself the little patch of quieted forest. Possibly the only habitable plot of ground left in America, as far as we know. He returned to the base pale and diminished.
The Luddite woman requested that I stay behind with her to oversee the sanctification from a distance.
“I want you to see for yourself,” she said, cryptically.
We stood on her land overlooking a valley in the hillside like a deep fold in the stony earth. Through my binoculars I could see the stricken looks on the soldiers’ faces as their vehicles jounced across the hungry soil toward the grabbing trees at the highest point of the valley. Rot-softened rocks popped like roadkill under their tires. When the transports stopped, the troops stepped out onto the ground with the trepidations of early astronauts.
A handheld radio crackled in my fist.
“We’re in position,” the general said. “Beginning deployment now.”
I thumbed the reply button to tell him ten-four.
The woman held my field glasses to the bridge of her nose. We watched the jeeps and transport trucks empty out. Interspersed with the soldiers in matching green were clerics in their own colorful garb. I spotted a rabbi’s white robe, a monk’s orange sarong, a black-clad Catholic, the elaborate headdress of a Yoruban priestess. The general had drafted his own A-team of clergy into ecumenical battle. I could see their lips mouthing incantations of their faiths.
The first wave of soldiers rushed to the supply trucks to retrieve the arsenal of hand-forged icons—big billboard-sized recreations of the old woman’s religious relics. The soldiers hurriedly jammed the symbols into the ground as though they were landmines ready to explode.
The radio crackled again. “Does this formation look correct?”
I repeated the question for the woman, even though she could clearly hear it. She just nodded and smiled without lowering her field glasses.
“Yes, sir. Keep going.”
The soldiers first constructed a protective ring around the tightly packed convoy of vehicles, where the drivers all remained behind the wheel, engines idling, ready to retreat with whoever could climb aboard if the earth staged an attack. When the grunts on the ground with the symbols finished the initial circle they expanded it in a spiral pattern blooming out toward the V of trees at the foothill’s plateau. The idea was to work outward from the safety of the—hopefully—protected ground.
A thrumming sound rattled the sky. One of the General’s own ideas. He conscripted a platoon of ministers and priests to consecrate huge reservoirs. Now the first air tanker stocked with holy water would rain grace on the putrefied forest. The plane buzzed closer, lower.
At the same time another noise rose over the engine hum of the incoming aircraft. It started like a foghorn but stretched out longer, flatter, into a loud, low moan. I felt it before I heard it, vibrating up through the balls of my feet.
“What the hell is that?” the General said over the radio.
The organic groaning noise grew louder, angrier, swelling into a scream.
“Base camp, what is that noise—wait, wait, what is that, what’s happeni—”
The general’s shouts were drowned out in a babel of overlapping voices. Soon I could hear them not just over the radio but crying out from the valley itself, a collective howl drowned out by the subterranean wailing.
As the plane dipped to spray its payload, the trees rose up. A tower of trunks knotted together in a gnarl of rotted wood, unfurling like a dozen fingers on one mutant hand. It swatted at one wing of the plane, which twisted and disappeared behind the treeline with a fiery thump.
I barely noticed the plane crash. I was busy trying to reconcile the impossible. Both rocky slopes on either side of the valley seemed to be drawing together. Buried stones pushed through the dirt into crooked rows like shark’s teeth. The shadow in the cleft of the foothills deepened. The whole valley closed up around them, swallowing up the general, his men, his vehicles, the clergy, the whole bloody last stand. The rocky lips of the valley made a hellacious crunching sound as they ground together, wrenched apart, smashed together again. An enormous mouth, chewing, the rocky teeth and lips streaked with gore.
The hungry, groaning sound faded to a satisfied sigh.
The old Luddite woman cackled. She wobbled in a delighted circle and threw her field glasses to the ground. She pointed at the wet mouth of the earth, where our last great hope had been swallowed like a handful of pills.
“What did you do?” I said. My own binoculars fell from my hands.
She kept laughing.
“You were supposed to help us save the planet!”
“I did!” she said, coughing and gasping through her glee. I was afraid she might throw her arms around me in victory. In that moment I couldn’t stand the idea of touching her.
“I did, I did,” she said, her eyes glinting green. “Just not for us.”