The scent of fried bracken wafted past Draven as he walked through the dim corridor. The smell was earthy, like wet grass after a thunderstorm, and the aroma made his stomach rumble in anticipation. Three years ago, the thought of eating ferns would have sounded ridiculous, but these days, most of the colony regarded them as a delicacy, reminiscing in the delicate flavours of sauteed spinach and asparagus.
Draven looked over at his son, who had to run every few steps to keep pace with Draven’s long stride. Cobey should have been with Mrs Crab at the creche, but he’d complained of a belly ache and had cried, clutching onto Draven’s leg at drop-off time. Draven thought it was more because he missed his mother than any real illness, and he hoped that a proper breakfast would take his mind off it. His mother should have been back yesterday but had been delayed by the biggest storm they’d had all year. The same storm Draven and his team had been monitoring for weeks, praying for the perfect conditions to initiate the new machine. And as much as Draven would like his wife to return, if the storm passed before his team started the sequence, it could be months before they had another chance.
Cobey’s cheeks looked flushed, but Draven doubted it had anything to do with sickness. More likely from his exertion in the warm caverns, which were heated by the geothermal system to the maximum allowed eighteen degrees Celsius. He slipped his jacket off and called Cobey over, unzipping his son’s coat and ruffling his hair.
“Big day today, Cob. You have to promise not to get in the way when we get back to the compound. What I’ll be doing is dangerous, and no place for a six-year-old to be sniffing around. You’ll have to entertain yourself for a few hours. Stay in the office and do some drawing or something, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy. I’m hungry.”
“I know, son. We’re almost there. I hear they have eggs today. How long has it been since you had a real egg? You loved them last time, remember?”
“Eggs are yummy! Daddy?”
“Do I have to eat the green things?”
“Not if you don’t want to. They’re good for you though, but just eat what you feel like today. When you’re sick, you only have to eat the stuff you like.”
“Daddy? Will Mummy be home today?”
“I hope so, buddy. I hope so.”
Draven’s eyes had adjusted to the faint glow of the caverns, illuminated by dimmed LED bulbs scattered around the underground city. On the surface, it would be slightly brighter by now. During the day, the meagre fourteen percent of diffused sunlight which managed to penetrate the haze made it easy to see without the need for artificial lighting. The natural light only lasted about six hours before the streetlights needed to be switched on, but that small power saving allowed a few more litres of hot water per person for bathing, which made a huge difference to morale. People could shower twice a week for a few minutes each time, which made the dwellings much more pleasant for everyone. Other comforts had been introduced too. Now the taverns served hot food most days, and there was enough power for music to be played on small speakers in private bedrooms.
Draven had always assured his followers that the sun would return, and when the first rays shone through two years ago, Draven’s reputation and popularity skyrocketed. Back then, on the day that has since been dubbed Restoration Day, the rebirth of natural light went unnoticed by the naked eye, but the sound of a thousand alerts had chirped in unison, echoing through every crevice they’d colonised in the years since Concursus. And within a few months, the paltry light that reached the fields for a few hours a day was enough to breathe life back into the barren landscape. Ferns and bracken had proved their resilience, fighting their way back to relative abundance.
Encouraged by the return of the ferns, the botanical team had relocated some of the potato plants and apple trees outside. However, the experimental crops hadn’t survived long once taken from the hydroponic sheds, and Draven had forbidden further trials until the sunlight reached at least twenty percent. With a little luck, the new lightning net will work and will be a massive step forward. It had taken two hundred men almost six months to build, but it should be able to generate enough power to improve everyone’s lives.
Cobey tripped and fell beside him, grazing his elbow on the concrete floor. Springing to his feet, Cobey glanced side to side, then over his shoulder before staring up at Draven. Cobey bent his arm and lifted his elbow to inspect it. Beads of blood formed on the graze, then healed a moment later. Draven narrowed his eyes and leaned in, noticing the glow of yellow coming from the front of Cobey’s shirt. He flicked his son’s collar aside, exposing a chain with a yellow stone on the end hanging around his neck. Cobey giggled and brushed his father’s hand away.
“Does Marikai know you’re wearing that?” Draven asked.
Cobey nodded. “He said it would keep me safe.”
“Did he show how to use it, or did you work it out yourself?”
Cobey shrugged. “I don’t know. If I hurt myself, it makes me better.”
Draven rubbed his chin, then removed the clear, teardrop pendant from his own neck and held it out to Cobey. “Do you want to wear this one, too, Cob? Maybe you can work out how to contact Mummy with it.”
Cobey’s face lit up and he thrust out his hand. “Yay, Daddy!”
“Make sure you don’t lose these, buddy. Okay?” Cobey nodded, and Draven slipped the pendant over his head. They rounded the bend and entered the main tavern.
The woman behind the bar gasped and bowed. When she looked up, Draven saw it was Polly. “Mr Doyle, sir. Welcome. Please, come in. Hello, Cobey. Are you working with Daddy today?”
Draven nodded to her, then reached down to unhook Cobey from his leg and hoisted him into his arms. Draven looked to his right. The few people inside stared, all placing their mugs on the table and standing to greet him, their left hands placed over their chests out of respect. “As you were, my friends. I’m just here for a bite to eat. Please, sit down.”
“Mr Doyle, is it too early for an ale?” Polly asked. “We have a fresh batch.”
He smiled and gave her a curt nod. “It’s never too early for ale.”
“And what about you, Cobey?”
“It’s too early for Cobey. He can’t have ale till at least lunchtime.” He laughed. “Just a water for him please, Polly.” She hurried to the side of the bar and filled a large ceramic mug from a wooden barrel on the counter, then placed it in front of Draven. After he’d taken a sip and nodded his thanks, she reached up and took a small plastic cup from the shelf and sloshed some water from a large jug into it.
“And to eat? Poached eggs with fiddleheads makes a wonderful start to the day.”
“Yes, please. Two plates would be great.”
Polly bent down and fumbled under the counter a moment, standing up to slide a bowl of deep green strips toward him. “Jerky, Mr Boyle? Cured bracken stalks with Indian spices.”
“Thank you,” he said, pulling a stool out and taking a seat. He took a piece of jerky and offered the bowl to Cobey, who screwed up his nose and shook his head. Draven smelled the jerky, the spices sparking memories of the fragrant rice and tandoori chicken he used to buy every Thursday night from the curry house on his way home from work. He slipped the jerky into his mouth, his tongue stinging from the chilli, then mellowing as the cumin, coriander and cinnamon came through.
Cobey stared at an oversized analogue clock on the back wall. “Daddy? Why is the clock so big?”
“It is big, isn’t it, Cob? It’s from the old railway station. It used to be mounted high up so everyone could see it from a distance and know what time it was. I was here the day the first settlers brought it in here. It took four men to carry it and two more to stand it up, three at the back and three at the front to save it from toppling. The room went from silence to laughter at the sight of it, the huge clock cheering everyone up. God knows we needed something to lift our spirits.”
Reflecting on that day, he knew it was not the clock itself that people responded to, but the symbol of hope it represented. Proof that grander things were possible than what they’d endured in the years previous. The clock was among the treasures of the first haul when they’d got the old steam train running again. It was a souvenir from a past that may never be as great again, and a reminder that together, they could achieve anything.
The tavern would soon be full of field workers, arriving for breakfast before their five-hour workday. Draven would make sure they were back in the compound by then. He liked to make cameo appearances from time to time but hated his newfound celebrity status in crowds. And he especially didn’t want to expose Cobey to it. Even a trip into the fields to meet a handful of people was enough to overwhelm him.
The eggs and sauteed fiddleheads came out, the aroma and steam from the sizzling pan made Cobey grin from ear to ear. Draven knew Cobey wouldn’t eat the bracken, though Polly made a great fuss about how sweet the fiddleheads were, and that they were only available for a month or two before people would have to make do with the slightly bitter main fronds.
“Daddy, why are they called figgle eggs?”
“Fiddleheads, son. They’re the young fern leaves before they’ve unfurled. They look like the curled-up head of a fiddle, or violin.” Cobey nodded, though Draven knew he’d never seen a fiddle. One day Draven hoped he could show him all the things that everyone had taken for granted. Cobey climbed up and stood on the stool, craning his head to see into the kitchen. “Careful Cob, you don’t want to fall.” Draven always felt over-protective of Cobey. He was the driving force that encouraged Draven to continue innovating and improving the colony.
After breakfast, Draven said goodbye to Polly and led Cobey back through the tunnels and up the stairs near the compound. At the top, he looked to the horizon. The faint rumble of thunder and bright lightning flashes were noticeably closer. As predicted, the storm looked like it would pass through the heart of the village in a few hours. The chill outside bit to the bone, even through his jacket, and if he could feel it, he knew Cobey would be cold too. He knelt down and Cobey climbed onto his back, thrusting his fist out in front to indicate he was ready to be piggybacked to the compound.
Fifty of his top men would be waiting for him inside the compound, ready to initiate the lightning net. All experts in their fields. Engineers, electricians, welders, builders, scientists, laser technicians, plus the team of plasma physicists, which he led. The design for the lightning net was based on the functional prototype he’d built in the years after Concursus. Once the mined fossil fuels had been depleted, Draven deduced that the most viable source of clean energy would be to leverage power from the strange dry lightning events that had started across the globe. In hindsight, running out of fossil fuels was lucky, since towards the end, carbon dioxide had spiked to dangerous levels due to the absence of vegetation to convert it to oxygen.
At university, Draven had theorised about a device capable of attracting lightning and harnessing the energy by using a strong laser to shoot into rain clouds, ionising atmospheric gasses to create a plasma beam that conducts electricity. The small-scale prototype was a massive success, cementing Draven’s reputation as a genius, saviour, and natural leader. Trouble was, he couldn’t get enough power into the laser to hold the lightning in place indefinitely. Although a typical storm could supply sufficient power to recharge the thousands of batteries the train crews had scrounged, the batteries barely provided enough electricity for the village to function for a week, even with their modest energy demands.
Fortunately, the storms had rarely been more than a week apart, but at least a dozen times in the past, the village had been plunged into darkness, most times only for a day or two, but twice the primitive living had lasted close to a fortnight. Blackouts threatened more than just the comfort and morale of the colony. It threatened their lives as well. The sleeping quarters could retain enough heat to keep people safe for three days or so, but the cold always won eventually, and each extended blackout so far had claimed many victims before the power was restored.
Regardless, Draven wasn’t content to settle for mediocre survival. His plans were much grander and more ambitious. The new lightning net was a hundred times larger than the current net and exploited the full power of the prototype to energise the laser and create a plasma beam powerful enough to attract lightning to it, then funnel the electricity into the giant bulb where it, in theory, would circulate forever. They’d know by tomorrow if his calculations were correct.
At the compound, Draven led Cobey into his office and set him up at the table with coloured pencils and paper. “You just wait in here, Cob. Okay? I’ll be just over there at the control centre, where all the computers are. If you need me, get someone’s attention and ask them to fetch me, but don’t leave the office. Understood?”
“Okay, Daddy. I’m going to draw a picture of the big clock for Mummy.”
Draven tousled Cobey’s hair and closed the office door, then walked towards the control centre, where a dozen of his men watched the observation screens. As he got closer, he heard the buzzing chatter of them talking over each other. He saw Brady at the back massaging his neck and sipping on a mug of coffee.
“Are we all set?” he asked Brady, slipping in beside him. Brady turned and looked at him with red eyes. “Geez, Brade, you look stressed. Everything alright?”
“Nice of you to show up, Dray. The storm’s coming in faster than we anticipated. Stronger too.” He pointed at one of the screens. “See. The first bolts of lightning are in range now and the the small net is almost at full capacity already. The plan, unless you disagree, is to give it a few more minutes and then energise the laser. It should have enough guts to pull the lightning in. The boys are worried that the wind will prevent the plasma beam from forming properly if we wait for the storm to be right above us.”
Draven examined the screens, nodding in agreement. “How long till we’re ready?”
“Ready now, boss.”
“Initiate. Even at eighty percent, the small net can power the beam for a good hour before we risk exhausting the charge.”
“Okay. Attention guys,” Brady clicked his fingers and waited for his team to look around. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Ready all systems and confirm status.”
A dozen men sprang to action, some typing furiously on keyboards, others turning dials on the interface while watching the monitors. Two men stood on either side of a massive lever that looked like a giant light switch. A loom of cables the size of a sewer pipe ran from the switch, through a hole in the wall and into the base of the new lightning net.
“Obs ready, Brade.”
“Mainframe online, sir”
“Master switch on standby, sir.”
“Good work, gentlemen,” Draven said. “Initiate the laser in three, two, one…Go.”
The two men strained and pulled the giant lever down until it clicked. Draven held his breath. A moment later, a green laser shot straight up from the top of the lightning net and disappeared into the clouds. The laser superheated the air, vaporising water molecules, then stripped the protons and electrons from the atmosphere, creating a swirling ionised beam which looked like a three-kilometre-tall glass cylinder filled with fire. A plasma beam. One which would channel billions of watts into the lightning net.
Lightning flashed inside the clouds, then shot out at the plasma beam, illuminating the compound like daylight. The point where the beam entered the clouds changed from a tube of fire to a giant spiral of energy, resembling an enormous, white-hot, stretched-out slinky. The lightning travelled down the shaft of the beam in a helical coil, racing towards the ground.
Something tugged on Draven’s trousers but he ignored it, unable to take his eyes off the emerging helix. Any second now, the lightning would reach the net, amplifying more power for the laser and the cycle would repeat. The tugging at his trousers repeated and Draven heard a familiar small voice.
“Daddy,” a voice called from below him.
Draven waved a hand, dismissing the interruption.
“Overload!” cried a man at the observation monitors.
“Abort! Cut the power to the laser!” Brady yelled.
“No!” Draven screamed. “Don’t shut it down! The net will contain it.”
“Not now, Cobey,” Draven snapped without looking down.
A moment later, Draven heard the voice again. “Daddy, I’m scared.” This time, Draven did look. Cobey was waving at Draven. He’d climbed onto the giant cable running from the master switch lever to the lightning net. As Draven’s eyes met his son’s, lightning flashed, and the cable Cobey was standing on became smothered with erratic arcs of electricity.
“No Cob,” Draven yelled. “Jump down!”
But it was too late. Draven watched in horror as the lightning engulfed Cobey, then flung him to the ground like a swatted fly.