photo from Pexels by artist Mikhail Nilov
a story by Joshua Brown
Racists were everywhere. As I scurried down the street I felt this strange sense of loneliness. Everyone was wearing a patch on their shoulder declaring which races they loved and which they hated. Simple boxes with colors sporting either a red "X" or a green cross symbol filled a five by five velcro patch on nearly every shoulder.
I had no patch.
There were a lot of people milling around outside but we were not in a city, we were about 100 miles into the Nebraska farmland. Giant solar panels provided shelter for all of us from the burning 100 degree sunshine. We were told it was global warming from climate change.
I think there were about 1 million people in my solar camp. Racism was massive, almost universal I would say. But there was no violence happening. All of the people with patches were also wearing augmented reality headsets that allegedly made physical features match their preferred races. I had never worn one of the headsets but all who received the patch were also forced to wear a headset, which, apparently, they did willingly. And the headsets never came off.
photo from Pexels by artist SHVETS production
You couldn't really talk to any of the Helmets, at least that's what I personally called them, they always responded in an affirmative. I'm pretty sure if you asked them any question that resulted in a "no" the headset would just reframe the question into one that required a "yes" instead. It was disconcerting to have a psychological translator like that so mostly I just ignored them.
I was allowed to not wear a Helmet because I didn't proclaim my preferred races. It was actually never proclaimed as a law or dictated by some politician or leader. I personally think it was a honeypot online. I was always careful to not express certain opinions on social media. Maybe the Helmets were not so careful.
We lived in this camp out of choice, not necessity. City temperatures became unlivable in the last 20 years. About 5 years ago, an NGO had nuclear bombed a path for a glacier to path from the arctic circle down to the Nebraska plains. Fresh water, solar energy and enough cool winds to survive this heat cycle just led to massive tent camps that no one ever left.
A couple of us had electric ATVs that we raced around. I had one and there were two Helmets that had them and every once in a while we'd get together and roam through the miles of camp dodging solar panel pillars and distracted Helmets.
You didn't have to plug in the ATVs, there was a large tower at the very center of the camp that harnessed the solar power into a usable frequency that enabled high speed recharge of all devices, from helmets to ATVs to vending machines.
photo from Pexels by artist Tima Miroshnichenko
There were no shops. Everything was a vending machine. There was even "homemade" vending machines that purposefully gave you food that was slightly different each time, simulating errors or adjustments in recipes that a real human might make on the fly.
Everything was free. Well, at least for me. The "cost" of the vending machines was offset by the Helmets scanning in with each "purchase." There was no purchase but the data was valuable enough that not only could the Helmets eat, drink and be merry for free, but me as well, without plugging into the system at all.
Out of the camp, there were a few of us who were without a patch. We avoided each other like the plague though. I know for me, with the Helmets recording my every move and word, I did not want to jeopardize my status by speaking with others like me and accidentally triggering the racist label.
For the most part, I was pretty entertained. I mean, for the past several years I got to see beautiful sunsets every night, ate lots of delicious food and although it was a bit lonely, I was surrounded by agreeable (even if it was deceptively so) people.
Then it happened. A crew came in from outside out camp to update the firmware on some of the vending machines. It was actually pretty normal, I would say, this happened maybe once every couple months, but this time they invited me to come along with them.
I hadn't been out of the camp for a while and this seemed routine enough not to disrupt my happiness but also I think I felt a bit of envy because they always seemed connected to each other. They weren't one in a million, they seemed to be part of some cool group that traveled the country, braving the triple digit heat every day without some giant glacier to offer reprieve.
So I said yes.
photo from Pexels by artist GinHing Kuo
I was a bit curious about solar recharging from outside of the centralized grid but other than that I was ready and willing to join their merry band of vending machine technicians. We met up the next day and I left the camp with just the clothes on my back. We started walking out of the camp and I immediately felt happiness.
There were 27 technicians in the group and about 20 of their partners and just about as many children. So in total our party consisted of nearly 70 caravanning out into the blistering heat.
I forgot to tell you, but the heat also had other effects on the planet. For the past 20 years, trees and plants kept growing bigger. I would say, not over, but nearly twice as big as they did before. Trees that grew 50 feet tall now grew about 85 feet. Those that grew 80 now grew about 160. Solar panels didn't grow so I was a bit thrown off by how different things felt just in the last 5 years. I felt so small walking along in the presence of EVERYTHING that was growing so large.
Even the bugs seemed bigger.
It was so hot we walked for about 3 hours and then took a midday break. Three hours and we had only walked about 10 miles outside of the camp. We were headed west, there were several camps near the Rockies that we were going to work with, they didn't have a glacier, but they did have lots of caves and a lot more people. One of the camps even had more than 10 million people living there.
We spread out under the shade of several nearby trees and rested for several hours. During that time I made friends with one of the technicians, he went by "Muhammed Dervisoglu." Dervisoglu was also patchless and he had lots of interesting theories about what happened with the increasing heat.
photo from Pexels by artist Vaibhav Kashyap
He told me this one story about a small town called Nesreddin which he serviced during the early waves of heat. The entire town refused to install solar panels, which at the time Dervisoglu was selling as part of a small business venture. He recalled that he moved on to the next town and heard rumors that Nesreddin was purchasing large panels from his competitor. He had returned to their town to see.
From what he told me, when he entered the town, he immediately noticed large fuel trucks lining the main street and an enormous array of solar panels paneled vertically instead of horizontally.
One of the residents recognized him and they began to shout him out of the town. He never returned but he suspected some strange connection between the fuel trucks, the incorrectly paneled solar panels and global warming.
As the sun began it's descent, we began to pack our bags and once again head back out. This time, the children took the lead as we were on a large flat path that went for miles. Far into the distance we could see the mountains towering into outer space.
After another 10 miles we crested a small hill and to my surprise we overtook a large field filled with trucks. The Helmets took off their augmented reality headsets.
I was completely speechless.
The trucks were mostly covered with the same giant solar panels we had back at camp but they were not electric trucks. They looked completely different than any truck we had before the Great Heat began.
Dervisoglu confided in me that these were part of a special convoy they sometimes worked with. There were about 200 trucks, all exactly the same. They were stark white with tracking on the back like a tank. The front of the truck was shaped like our electric trucks but reminded me of a fish to some degree.
We set up camp for the night outside of the solar panels, we were going to get an early start to get an extra few miles in during the cooler time of day. I lay awake thinking of the trucks, watching the stars float overhead, seeing giant beetles scuttle by every once in a while. I had forgotten about the Helmets.
Before the sun rose, the camp began to pack up and I was reminded of the absence of headsets. While we were walking, I asked Dervisoglu about it and he just grunted and pointed at the sun. I honestly have no clue what he was trying to imply. My first thought was just "hurry up, don't bother me with stupid questions" but maybe there WAS something else he was trying to say.
photo from Pexels by artist Bob Ward
We walked maybe 15 miles before breaking for the midday heat. So far, we had only gone maybe 34 or so miles from my camp. We were walking pretty fast for some of the children though. Clearly everyone was very accustomed to walking, setting up camp and doing the same the next day.
Tomorrow we would reach one of the intermediate sized camps, it was air conditioned from electricity produced by geothermal heat turbines. I think it was only about 70,000 people.
I didn't really want to ask anyone else about the headsets, it just seemed uncomfortable and possibly rude. Instead I played some games with the children. They had a game they played with a small bean bag. The basic premise was to throw it through an improvised vertical hoop using a hook.
We met with a Gardener, Gardeners were people living outside of camps, usually using running water to power some type of air conditioner. There was a large river that had formed after the nuclear trenching and this Gardener was running the water through a generator to support him and his family.
Day two of the sun casting shadows, we moved forward. We were a small but rowdy caravan. The laughter of the children filled the hours with a peaceful serenity only matched by the breathtaking views caught upon cresting the rolling hills.
The sun had set deeply when we finally stopped to camp for the night. We could see the lights of the next stop in the distance but it would be inhumane to keep traveling with the children. So we settled in for the night.
I woke suddenly to Dervisoglu shaking me. He held his finger to my mouth to stop me from speaking. It was very dark but I could see movement in the camp. I could see the reason for the abrupt awakening. The camp we were headed to was illuminated in flames.
photo from Pexels by artist Pixabay
I couldn't really tell because of how far away we were but it did appear that the flames would have been unsurvivable. They towered very high into the sky, glittering light even as far as our little camp was. Dervisoglu had children and a partner to protect but several others of us decided to set out to scout what happened and possibly help in any way we could.
We walked a couple hours and the flames kept raging illuminating us more as we got closer. It was eerily silent. No screams, no crashing, no yelling, no commotion at all. As we got closer we noticed that there was no crackling either. The flames were silently consuming the camp.
It was, however, very hot. There were 7 of us and we stationed ourselves within earshot of each other, spread from east to north. The solar panels were completely disfigured on the north but those on the east had gone relatively untouched. There were no people to be seen. Maybe they had escaped unscathed.
We found 40 headsets about throwing distance from the outskirts of the camp.
A few explosions caught us off guard as the vending machines on the west end of the camp went up in flames. We started to rotate from north to west, another hour passed and there still appeared to be no signs of life anywhere. The flames were still eerily silent besides the occasional ping of metal suddenly adjusting or some singing noises.
We spent until the sun started to rise spanning around the camp, going as close as we dared to the heat, not a sign of life except for that small scattering of headsets.
The seven of us camped about a mile east of the fire. All we could do was wait for the heat to die down so we could look for clues. Maybe some would be more evident in the daylight.