Since you don’t see any reason to hide, and you have an armed submarine, you surface it after a few hours. The men and women working at the beach are interested in your arrival but were obviously expecting you. One of them comes out to meet you in a small inflatable motor boat, that strange smell of diesel hanging around the engine as it guns up to you. He introduces himself as Connor, head of trade. You notice that like the other people you’ve seen so far, he’s physically larger than you, and sleek – you guess it helps to be fat around here. He’s wearing a kind of life jacket / heavy weather coat combination, carrying a vicious-looking knife at his waist and he has a rifle in the boat. He steps easily onto your submarine deck, shakes hands, and speaks with your linguist briefly. She’s getting the hang of their weird mix of “English” and “French” and “Russian,” and is able to understand most of what he says. He points out that leaving the submarine here for a week would be quite dangerous, as the ice near the pack moves around a lot and can freeze in a ship or crush it if left unattended. It might be better, he suggests, to return the sub to your mother ship and come back in something you can drag up onto the ice. When you reveal that you don’t have something of that kind, he suggests you come with him to the ice now and send the sub back to the Vladimir Putin – you don’t want it frozen in. That’s how many of their remote habitations are formed, he tells you – old ships that got frozen in.
You don’t have any other ideas so you follow his advice. At the shore he and a few people look askance at your trade samples, but he doesn’t ask any questions. You are shown inside a cozy igloo and left to your own devices for a while. The igloo looks pretty temporary but you are struck that it has real glass windows. Looking out of them you can see those snowmobiles, which have real tracks and skids and powerful-looking diesel engines. There are some larger ones with trailers that were out of sight before. No sign of heavy weapons.
Richard and his team arrive after another 18 hours, and spend the next 6 hours pumping what you guess is diesel from the hold of their ship into some waiting tanks that are connected to the larger snowmobiles. Men and women – all large, heavyset people – pile your samples onto some sleds, then everyone takes a rest for a few hours while the sun dips below the horizon. When it rises again – perhaps at 5am? – you are roused and offered seats in the cabs of the larger snowmobiles. Again, everyone is polite and friendly but it’s a worry to be separated from each other in the company of armed strangers, but again there is no choice – each snowmobile only has room for 2 or 3 people in the cab. Connor joins you, and you set off slowly over the ice, the snow falling gently around you as you slide off to the north.
You travel for about 8 hours non-stop, then the snowmobiles pull into a circle and everyone decamps, sets up tents and crashes. You sleep until you are woken by the sound of rifle shots. Surging out of your tent in a panic, you almost die of shock when you find a grizzled, blood-covered animal head facing you in the snow, its eyes staring blankly at you. It’s a white bear the size of a large shark, dead on the snow. Someone you don’t know apologises for waking you, says they weren’t expecting such a beast so far inland. The others are already setting about the grim task of butchering it. In the drifting snow and dim half light, lit by a couple of lamps, it’s a horrific scene, but they don’t seem to want to waste any of it. You go back to bed, unsettled, and when you wake in the morning even the blood from the butchery has been covered by fresh snow. The remains of the bear are packed in ice on one of the snowmobiles. You have never seen any mammal on land that is larger than a cat, and it’s shocking to think you are sharing this icy world with such a monstrosity. Are they going to eat it?
You travel for another 8 hours. The sun is again setting for its brief rest below the horizon when you arrive at a strange place. It is a field of shacks, just their roofs protruding from the ice, many of the roofs made of glass, laid out in a ring like fields in the ice. Between each of the shacks are fields of solar panels on little stilts, with pathways between them that you drive through. There aren’t a lot of shacks but there are a lot of solar panels. They’re arranged in a ring around a central fortress-like structure of grey steel and glass that rises out of the ice, perhaps 20m above the surrounding empty plain. A couple of red and green lights flicker on its roof, and welcoming orange glow is cast from its windows. A cold, constant wind is blowing loose snow across this strangely welcoming scene, and beyond the fortress and its furthest fields of solar panels there is a cluster of wind towers, surrounded by growths of ice like hills, turning majestically in that constant wind. They are barely visible in the gloom, but as the sun sinks behind the ice their huge, silent blades glow with its weak red light.
You are led inside the fortress-like place, which just as they said looks like it might once have been a research building. You sleep in a narrow room carved out of the ice and connected to an ice-fast outer door of the research building – it’s cold and damp but safe, and in the morning you have a small breakfast of fish, potato slices and more of that “coffee.” Then Connor comes to meet you, takes you on a quick tour, and finally introduces you to one of their “treasures.” You take tunnels carved in the ice through several turns, that lead you perhaps 30m away from the entrance to the fortress, and end in a heavy door. He opens the heavy door and you enter a warm, dimly lit room that is perhaps 40m long, 4m deep and 10m wide. The roof must protrude above the ice because it is made of steel and shaped ice like an igloo, but the base must be beneath the ice surface. The room contains five racks, each 2m high and 1m wide, and into each rack are slotted four identical square shapes. The four shapes neatly fit the width and height of the rack, and they are each about 10cm wide. There are thousands of these objects slotted carefully into the racks, stretching all the way to the back of the room and all connected to a single cable running along the floor in the middle. On the nearest of them you can see “TESLA” written in a fading, ageing script.
“Batteries,” Connor says, “four of them store enough to power a pre-flood home for a week. There are hundreds of thousands in the arctic. Maybe millions, we don’t know. They feed us in winter.”
And then he takes you back for more “coffee” and tells you a sad story of ingenuity, desperation and conflict that ended with a couple of thousand people eking out a precarious existence in scattered settlements across the polar ice.
Before the flood started consuming the world, global warming was the greatest threat facing the planet, and civilisation was forced to rapidly shift away from carbon-based fuels. They switched to solar, and to store it they developed batteries that could be installed in homes to store the daytime sun for evening. Most developed nations and a lot of poor nations had huge programs of rooftop solar power and batteries in place when the world started to flood. When the lowlands of europe and America began to flood, the governments of France, Denmark and the USA made a secret plan. They tore up homes that were threatened by the flood and moved the most valuable resources up and away from the waters, storing them on higher ground at first just to try not to lose so much material to the flood. But when they realised the flood wasn’t stopping they conceived of a grand plan to save the world’s resources. The growing oceans were absorbing much more carbon dioxide, and the collapse of arctic ice had been reversed, but now it was growing rapidly as the lands that used to impede its spread were submerged. The governments of these countries realised that in the future this might be the only solid land on earth, and was certainly the only stable land they could conceive of in the immediate future. So they moved all those batteries, solar panels, glass and copper wires to the arctic and stored them in caverns in the newly-thickening ice. As the situation in Europe and America became more desperate, people fleeing the floods were told the only way to get into refugee settlements on higher ground was to strip their homes and bring the key materials with them: batteries, solar panels, wiring, steel pans, garden soil, glass. This was all gathered together and shipped to the arctic, to be stored there until the water level stabilized.
When the governments realised that the waters were not going to stop until all the earth was consumed, they changed their plans: they began constructing settlements in the ice, which they would use as a base of operations and storage for post-flood communities. They kept the plans secret to prevent raiding and conflict, but unfortunately they kept their plans too secret – governments collapsed long before the end, and took knowledge of the plans with them. But the coast guard, and some arctic researchers, remembered, and as the world turned to cannibalism and piracy these people took their ships and families and friends and headed north. After a period of desperation and conflict they settled into roughly the pattern that they are in now. The batteries were linked together and the solar panels set up to be rolled out in summer and rolled away in winter. The batteries would charge up, and were laid out around settlements in their thousands and thousands. In summer they charged, and in winter they ran lights, heating and most of all hydroponic gardens – hundreds of square metres of gardens dug into the ice, growing potatoes, strawberries, cabbages and sometimes even oats and beans. In winter the communities settled in for the long night, living off fish and seal meat harvested in summer, and potatoes and strawberries grown in the hydroponic gardens. Then as soon as the sun rose, they ventured out, rolled out their solar panels, and began recharging. They also opened up gardens in the ice, heating them inside with a combination of greenhouse glass and solar power, and growing more food to prepare for the following winter. Every winter was a close call, because they always ran out of food near the end, and every summer was a season of furious work, but over 70 years no community had failed. In summer they traded with each other and worked together; in winter they settled into their dens and waited out the frozen dark.
“We have riches up here,” Connor told them. “There is glass, soil, copper, and so many batteries. But we are living hand to mouth for a simple reason. We don’t have enough people to expand our farms and panels in the summer, and so we can’t allow our population to grow because we can’t feed the new mouths. We’re working flat out to prepare for the next winter and maintain things as they are, we don’t have time to build new things. If we could just get a group of people up here for a summer, working for us and helping to build new farms, new battery stores, new solar setups; but if they then left before the winter came. A few seasons of that and maybe we could get the space we need to grow. But as it is we’re fighting entropy up here, with nowhere to go.”
He looks at you all. “We don’t need a lot of the stuff that’s been dumped up here, maybe you do. But maybe we can trade? You are here for trade … right?”
And that is where we will start the adventure tomorrow.