Sometime ago I wrote some posts about a campaign idea set in the world of Stephen Baxter’s Flood, where sea levels had risen to cover the entire earth and what little remained of the human population had been forced to make its life on the open ocean. I envisaged raft cities and OTEC remnants, and tried to bend the physics of the world to imagine some way that it might be possible for humanity to survive in such an unforgiving environment. Early next year I plan to run a one-shot adventure set in this world, using the Cyberpunk rules, and set in a region of the post-diluvian world that I will call the Gyre.
I have decided that this will be a gentler version of the Flood: sea levels have only risen by about 6000m, so there is a small swathe of land in one part of the Himalayan plateau that is still above the water, as well as a handful of mountain peaks in the Andes. The areas around these peaks are the new continental shelves, narrow zones of teeming ocean life, and other mountain ranges, such as the Alps and the Rockies, though completely submerged, are perhaps close enough to the surface to support an ecology of sorts, and maybe even to allow undersea arcologies to exist, though life in them would likely not be pleasant. Unfortunately in this version of the Flood the remaining tiny landmasses are or have been warzones, heavily damaged in battles for possession during the final years of the flooding, so although they are rich in land in the new world, the residents of these little archipelagoes live in a constant state of conflict, and are not capable of leading humanity forward to a new world. Life on the open seas still holds some allure to those who wish to escape war and death, but it comes with its own risks – of starvation, thirst and storm. By a freak of fluid dynamics and history, the Gyre is an example of a uniquely fortunate open ocean community, and it is here that I will set the adventure, perhaps 100 years after all of human civilization drowned.
What and where is the Gyre?
The gyre is a huge fluid dynamic phenomenon, which has carved out an area of relatively placid and protected seas in the centre of what was once the Tibetan plateau. After the Flood the oceans are unconstrained by land masses, and huge and powerful currents sweep across the planet, bringing with them powerful storms and huge waves that make life on the open seas difficult and terrifying, but there are spots where strange local phenomena serve to create calmer, relatively storm free environments. The Gyre is a community of floating remnants built in one such region. Powerful currents flow from west to east above the tropics, but when they reach the Himalayan landmass they separate, and the currents passing the north side of the mountains slow down and curve, like the low pressure eddies above an aircraft wing. Curling off the spur of the mountains, they hit the relatively shallow and even expanse of the Tibetan plateau, forming an arc of swirling chaos around the plateau. A weaker version of the same phenomenon on the northern edge of the plateau completes the circle, and in the centre of this tear-drop shaped border of constantly stormy water is a broad expanse of relative calm, perhaps a couple of hundred kilometres across and maybe 500 kms from the warring states of the Himalayan Archipelago. Protected by this storm zone from both war and unstable waters, the Gyre has formed into its own small autonomous community. While its stability arises from the protective storm zone, its wealth and relative modernity derive from another fluke of fate: huge flood-survival facilities that were build in Europe and Central Asia, but drifted on the currents into the Gyre where, stranded, they slowly formed their own covenant. The centre piece is the towering arcology of plastic and steel called The Arc, but there are several others that became stranded in the Gyre and give it its unique prosperity. The Gyre is a kingdom of constantly floating, slowly rotating parts, a constellation of abandoned facilities from the Drowning Time: a floating archipelago of remnants.
Facilities of the Gyre
The facilities of the Gyre float in a constantly evolving and reorienting constellation, always spinning around some unknown central axis in slow but chaotic patterns, and forever trapped within the teardrop boundaries of the storm zone. At their centre is the Arc, to which all residents direct all their efforts, but in reality few people live there or even ever visit. Each facility is unique in its culture and origins, and functions as a kind of independent city within the complex of the Gyre.
The most prominent of the remnants is the Arc, a massive floating arcology that was thrown together in desperation by the combined industry of France, Germany and Britain as they realized the Drowning was not going to end. Being low countries they were the first to have to abandon the land, and the least prepared, so their solution was low-tech at first and enhanced later. They bound together six oil rigs in a rough hexagon, the edges of the hexagon formed from abandoned oil rigs, and joined the whole thing together with anything that would float. The walls were initially an amalgam of wood, tires, shipping containers, anything that would float. Near the end someone developed a technology to extrude plastic from sea water and a kind of algae, and all of the industrial power of three nations was devoted to covering the whole structure in extruded plastic. By the time the waters finally took the last of the cities of France and Germany the Arc had been built into a kilometre deep monstrosity of plastic, wood and steel, designed so that much of its depth would be underwater, but enough above water to protect the centre of the space from even the most ferocious storms. Beneath the surface they built wave-powered generators, and on the sides they installed solar panels; inside the structure they dumped hundreds of tons of soil, and planted trees and grass. An army of workers slaved night and day to complete it before the waves took it, but at the end there was a revolution, when those workers realized they weren’t going to be allowed to live on the object of their toil. The thing eventually took float half finished, and fighting in and around it lasted for years. It drifted across the new flood plains of Europe, often running aground and then freed as the waters rose, coming into conflict with every new nation that took to the sea as the waters rose. But it also drifted east, and in the chaos of the final years of the Drowning it was lost to history, eventually reappearing with its lucky surviving residents in the Gyre.
The Arc is an ecosystem all of its own. It has trees and grass above ground, and great plastic and steel strakes protruding from its keel host reefs teeming with fish. The outer walls of the rigs on its corners, pock marked with holes and breaches, are home to thousands of screaming sea birds; their guano keeps the fields within fertilized and provides chemicals for explosives. Near the water line it hosts fields of barnacles, which are harvested for silicates; the corals of its reefs too are recycled for their essential nutrients. The wave generators provide enough power for essential function, and it hosts an array of batteries that can be used to power the many ships that dock with it and feed it. Those generators also maintain a last, barely-functional plastics lab, that continues to extrude plastics from sea water and algae, though in decreasingly small amounts. The Arc also hosts a seed bank and a huge repository of the scientific and historical knowledge of the world before the Drowning, though much was damaged or lost in the battles for possession of its riches. During its drift East the Arc has gathered a wide range of folk from across the old world, so that amongst its few thousand residents can be found perhaps a hundred languages, not all spoken easily, and it has slowly built its own language that is a mixture of all of them. The Arc has never been sunk or even seriously damaged by storm or tempest, but it is too big to move under its own power, and its residents are lucky that it found the Gyre; without power it might eventually have drifted into colder waters, and everyone frozen there. Instead it floats at the centre of the Gyre, moving perhaps only a few hundred metres a year and mostly in a circle. It is the centre of it all.
No one knows why the Towers were built. Some contend out of hubris, that the peoples of Europe wanted to preserve their most poignant architecture, thinking that even if it drifted untended on empty seas for an eternity at least some part of their noble past would be preserved; others think that the Towers were simply a desperate gift to the newly stateless residents of whichever place they were built, a kind of offering to the world of the Drowning. Labourers and great machines toiled day and night to throw together a bizarre agglomeration of ships, rafts and crates – all the old oil-powered vessels that would be useless once the last oil rig was torn from its fields and left to drift. Once they had crushed and bound together a large enough base of old shipping, the engineers of old hoisted on top some great tower, for no one knows what purpose, though some guess; the whole was then set adrift. Most likely it was intended to be a permanent floating source of steel and glass, and indeed legend holds that one of the towers held in its base a huge store of wood and coal, and another of chemicals. Two of the towers are telecommunications towers, one rumoured to have once been emblazoned with the flag of a lost state and both possibly purpose built; the last is the Eiffel tower, listing slightly to one side and partly submerged in the base of ships and rigs that hold it.
Though no one knows why the towers were built, everyone understands their current use: birds and binoculars. Each of the towers has a microwave relay station at the top, a mirror for laser ranging, and a small communications room. The towers themselves swarm with birds, and provide the Gyre with three breeding colonies for one of its main sources of food and fibre. The ships at the base are covered in guano and now also bound together by accretions of seaweed, coral, rust and salt. Some of the ships are partially broken in order to fit them together well, and the whole structure is unstable, constantly battered by waves, and full of unsafe structures. The Towers are not for living on, but for harvesting; one of them (named “the Russian” after its fading flag) even holds a breeding colony of oysters, and the eels from beneath the Eiffel are considered a delicacy. Rumour has it that the O2 Tower has not been fully looted even after a hundred years, and deep in the bowels of its complex superstructure one can find treasures still, if one is brave enough to look.
The Towers are the least stable of the remnants, and float rapidly around the perimeter of the Gyre orbiting the Arc at a great distance perhaps once every decade. Occasionally people will live on them temporarily, but mostly people visit them to harvest shellfish and guano, and occasionally steel, though steel is taken only with the permission of the Arc, and in carefully controlled quantities. A small squad of guards lives on each Tower, and anyone caught harvesting anything without a permit is killed without mercy. Some hulks are too precious to leave to scavengers.
The OTEC was built by the Chinese when they realized their world was going to be lost, and is the only remnant that started its life on the Tibetan plateau. The shallow seas of the plateau have a steeper temperature gradient than the rest of the world ocean, and the OTEC was built to harness that heat gradient for power. This power is used to provide energy to a state-of-the-art facility designed house the elite of China’s military and political establishment after the drowning. The cold water from the depths that rises through its systems is used in aquaculture, and also separated into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. The OTEC is huge, the size of the largest oil rig at its centre and even bigger beneath the surface in order to ensure its stability. It was designed to be serviced by several small submarines and ships, and the Chinese built it to last: 100 years after the Drowning it is not a pretty sight but it is still seaworthy and robust, if a little drafty.
Unfortunately for the Chinese their plan did not come to fruition. Starvation, thirst and disease took their toll on the residents, and the difficulties of life on the open seas led to rebellion and chaos. The wars for control of the Himalayan archipelago sucked in what little was left of the Chinese navy, and those who could escaped to what then seemed like the greener shores of the Himalayan archipelago, never to return as the war for land drained their blood and treasure. The OTEC was forgotten, its skeleton crew left to try as best they could to keep it functioning and to feed themselves, until one day outriggers from the Arc arrived and, realizing what they had found, made the Chinese technicians an offer they could not refuse. Now the OTEC powers laboratories and spends a large portion of its energy on charging power cells and filling hydrogen tanks for gas power. It also fuels light industry, and in amongst its sprawling substructure are an array of facilities for electrolysing seawater into metals. Scientists in the OTEC attempt to find new technologies for living on the ocean, and also run a computer facility that serves an essential purpose in the Drowned World: keeping track of the world’s slowly falling satellites.
The OTEC is a deep and heavy structure, and barely moves in its place. Some of its prodigious power generation is spent on huge undersea motors to hold it in place over the most promising stretches of water. Still it moves, slowly, and it is the policy of the Arc that it should move into the Gyre not towards the edge of the Gyre where the waters are more mixed and the risk of losing it greater. The OTEC is that little spark of civilization that keeps the people of the Gyre from falling back into barbarism, and also that keeps them independent of any other powers that might rise up in the distant Himalayas, and start looking to the floating world for new conquests …
If the OTEC is the Gyre’s last remnant of civilization, the Hulks are its vanguard of barbarism. The Hulks are a collection of old ships that have entered the Gyre through its currents – ghost ships adrift on the oceans – or whose crew surrendered them to the Gyre in hopes of admission to a better world. These Hulks were lashed together, interspersed with rafts and flotsam, and turned into living space for the ordinary workers of the Gyre. It is on the Hulks that all the grinding soul-crushing labour of the Gyre is performed. Here are the low-grade chemical factories producing fertilizer and explosives; the net repairers and weavers who constantly repair the crucial daily materials of life on the sea; the fishermen and labourers who keep the people of the Hulks fed and rebuild the homes that the sea constantly damages.
The Hulks are always swarming with activity. No one rests, because this sprawling complex of interlocked rafts and ships is at constant risk from the sea, and the bonds that lock them all together in a great carpet of teeming humanity need constant repair. Children swarm over chains, cables, ropes and anchors, making sure they are fast, rubbing off rust, checking pieces that need reweaving or resealing, reapplying rust-repellent materials and testing for weakness. On the bigger ships, chemical factories churn out compounds and pump waste into the sea; recyclers move from house to house and business to business, picking over every tiny object of rubbish to remake and reuse. What is lost to the sea is lost forever, and even the smallest thing may prove to be a precious treasure during hard times, so no one in the Hulks rests when they could be repairing, recycling or gathering.
Life is cheap in the Hulks. It is a world of power, crime and abuse. The only way out is down, or into “service,” working on the Arc or the OTEC. Even becoming an adventurer is almost impossible on the Hulks, since to be a real adventurer requires that most precious of commodities – a ship – and for all its wealth the Gyre does not have the capacity to make spare ships. In the Hulks, only the fishermen have ships – and only the bravest of folk ride in those. So for most people there is no way off the Hulks, just a life of squalor and hard scrabble. But to the Rafters, the Delvers and many of the Himalayans, such a life holds riches beyond imagination …
The booms are a complex of nets floating in the edge of the Gyre, near the swirling currents of the storm zone. These currents draw flotsam from far away outside the Gyre, but they also dredge up material from the plateau 1000 metres below, and sometimes this includes that most precious of commodities, soil, or even large pieces of plastic washed free of some ancient town or encampment. Sometimes these wash into the Booms, where they are trapped and gathered by the little colony of workers who always live here. They gather driftwood – especially driftwood – plastic, soil, little scraps of rubbish that might have fallen from a colony 1000 kilometres away, and many small fish, and carefully collect them together. The fish are separated into flesh and bone, the bone to be used in weaving and surgical instruments, the flesh dried and shipped to the Hulks for cheap sustenance. Sometimes a rare treasure falls into the nets – a bottle or a piece of flotsam containing metal, or driftwood, or some large sea animal with valuable bone – and the ever-vigilant workers will quickly claim it.
Work at the Booms is hard. They must be constantly watched for something valuable that might be quickly lost, and they are also constantly in need of repair and cleaning. The nets are an irreplaceable treasure, many kilometres of net of different sizes and weights that have been shepherded through 100 years of use, and they are constantly in need of repair and care. The people who work them are like a spider in its web, always checking for breaks, fixing damage, and quick to make a judgment about whether a prize snared is more danger to the nets than it is worth. The Booms are privileged work for residents of the Hulks, but they are also hard work, and dangerous. But life in the Hulks is hard, and the Booms offer promise of wealth delivered by the sea, so many come to work here, and work hard for the chance at something special. Work and risk are the essence of life in the Gyre.
Life in the Gyre
Life in the Gyre is about what is needed and what should be done. Of course in their personal lives people act according to morality, love and the concerns of daily affection, but on a political level the Gyre is ruled by expediency and efficiency. The world ocean does not care about morality, and all of humanity is powerless before the ocean’s force. Living on the ocean means acceding to its whims, and finding ways to live with its power, and the first lesson that this new and harsh world teaches humanity is that society must be organized according to what is needed, and not what is right. The single biggest demand in the Gyre is work – there is always more work to be done – and society is built around the mobilization of labour. No one is allowed to be lazy, and no one is allowed to be unemployed. There is no retirement, and to a large extent no education. The entire society is built on a system of centrally planned and organized labour, and skills are learnt through apprenticeships rather than schooling. Every year the scientists of the labs travel through the stations of the Gyre, seeking out talented individuals to join them for training. So too do the stormguards, the functionaries of the Arc, the fisher guilds … anyone who is not picked up by these elite societies is left to work as manual labour, working long and exhausting days in service to the Arc, a kind of serf in a post-apocalyptic feudal ocean. Nor is there room for rebellion or resistance, which is punished viciously and quickly by the stormguards – though in reality there is little desire for resistance, because no one who floats on the vast and cruel ocean can imagine a better world where freedom and self-expression matter. There is work, or death.
People in the Gyre are small, because food is scarce. But although food is scarce there is no starvation, and the people of the Gyre enjoy a diverse diet. They eat seabirds, guinea pigs, rats and fish; occasionally they are able to hunt or, more likely, scavenge whale meat. Although their diet is primarily protein, they also eat plantains and potatoes, grown on the arc but also in small amounts on the Hulks. Mushrooms are plentiful, and they have a wide range of vegetables that are grown wherever there is space. Seaweed is, of course, ubiquitous, as are shellfish grown on the outskirts of the remnants, and squid. Vine fruit such as passion fruit, grapes and gooseberries are to be found growing on every structure, and in certain seasons the Hulks blaze with the flowers of these omnipresent vines. Stunted lemons and pineapples grow on the outer slopes of the Arc, and everyone grows tomatoes. Occasionally a trader from the Himalayan war zone passes, selling rice or buckwheat, and those who can afford it bloat themselves on this exotic food; there are a few sheep on the Arc, mostly used to grow wool, and on special occasions it is possible to eat strong cheese. There is a large stock of wines and spirits from before the Drowning on the Arc, and the leaders of the Gyre will open these once a year to celebrate their continuing survival; everyone else drinks cheap alcohol made from waste plant material. There are many rituals around food, eating and community, and festivals in every season and every month. The people of the Gyre are bound together by their shared experience of the Ocean’s bounty; they do not starve, and though life is tough they are confident of tomorrow’s meal.
The Gyre’s rulers are not selected by any known rule. There is no system of government in the Gyre; a few people run the system, and these people are chosen by those already running the system. The people who rise to rule are ruthlessly selected for talent, because there is no space in the Gyre to appoint idiots or psychos to positions of power, and the ruling clique must choose their successors very carefully. Tradition has it that the ruling clique should always include a representative from the fisher’s guild, someone from the Hulks, someone from the OTEC, and a member of the stormguard; beyond this the clique’s size depends on circumstance and expedience. They rule with the consent of the governed, and a healthy dose of stormguard violence; no one expects justice, only expedience. What choice does anyone have?
This is the world of the Gyre, one of the best places to live after the Drowning. It is a world without space for complaint, dissent or resistance, a world of work and endurance. It is also a world of sunshine and freedom, a relatively stable society living on the great, free and liberated world of the open ocean. Life is clean, pure and intense, free of war and starvation and hopeful of a future, so very different to the violence of the Himalayas or the slow, sad madness of the Delvers; and much, much richer than the bare-naked subsistence life of the rafters. Slowly the people of the Gyre recover from the Drowning and hope to build a society that can grow and be more stable; perhaps one day a real human society can rebuild in this strange storm-wracked post-apocalyptic world. If it does, there is a good chance it will arise from the Gyre – or look to the little constellation of remnants as its main rival …
Update: Commenter Paul has suggested these two extra remnants to make the Gyre more likely to survive, and to add to the sense of lost past and pressing survival needs. See the comments for elaboration on the justification.
The Earthen Geyser: Near the western edge of the Gyre the constant motion of the tides picks up matter from far below and returns the forgotten earth to those high above it. The Earthen Geyser is an area of light brown water under a kilometer across rich in actual soil washed within human reach by an up-swelling current. The actual location varies constantly as the current moves, but is always located too close to the storm zone for a sane sailor’s comfort. The Harvesters dare lowering makeshift containers into the choppy waters from some of the sturdiest boats controlled by the Arc. They track the Geyser and dart in when the storm fronts retreat or the current drifts into the safe zone. These advances are matched with desperate retreats with the wind at their back when the clear period comes to its inevitable abrupt end.
Only the precious materials retrieved from the endless dance with doom justifies such risk taking. The silty water retrieved is taken to the Pans, sheets of thick plastics stretched out under the sun, and poured out there for evaporation to leave their reward. This effort provides the single largest source of new material into the community, replacing that lost to the wind or vagaries of chance. It is also critical to enabling the growth of the forest.
The Forest: Actually a series of small artificial islands created after the Drowning, these tree laden refuges are held in nigh-religious veneration by the inhabitants of the Hulks. The most recent structures are built from wood and each is filled precious soil and fertilizer extracted from human and seabird waste. In this soil grows some of the largest non-aquatic plants still alive in the world – swift growing pines and even a single raft with rot-resistant dense woods that won’t be usable for another century. The tress are carefully tended by caretakers who possess one of the most desired roles in the Gyre. Once grown to an acceptable size the tree is dug out and cut and carved to a dedicated use identified while the tree was still a sapling.
The Forests are never visited by most residents of the Gyre and drift far beyond the sight of almost all. Despite that, everyone is aware of their presence. 2 new wooden ships have been launched in the last 5 years and all know that for their community to survive the wood must grow.