Here are the first one thousand words of Carbon Run, the second book in my science fiction series, Tales From A Warming Planet. On a near-future Earth, climate change is rampant, fossil fuels are banned, and a young woman searches for her father, who’s on the run from an obsessed security agent. All four books in the series are stand-alone stories, but they all take place in a similar world. The other three books are The Mother Earth Insurgency (You can listen to the full novelette on this page.), City of Ice and Dreams, and Restoration. Please leave a comment below, and check out the video version of this page after the text.
Some poor devil down-valley’s going to have a carbon ticket in their com if they don’t douse that fire now. Anne Penn dismissed the thought before turning back to the male Klamath magpie. Pushing hair the color of fresh-sawn pine from her oval face, she was so intent on the bird she was observing from her blind that she didn’t notice the disappearance of the sun as charcoal clouds skulked east. The bird grasped the carcass of a dead tree with its needle-like talons, the yellow band on its left leg visible. He belted out a screep-screep-screep. Anne hoped a female answered. If it didn’t, the sub-species was doomed to extinction, another victim of the Warming.
Anne, what do you want for supper? The com message from Anne’s father blinked in her visual field.
She clicked her tongue impatiently. Wait a minute, Dad. He always managed to break her focus at the wrong time. Something’s happening.
Can’t wait long, my dear.
Another rumble rolled down the valley toward their ranch a half-mile away. Anne crouched in the wildlife refuge where she had watched a colony of the magpies since her fourteenth summer. For five years she had worked as a volunteer observer, following the instructions of government scientists. That first summer, the ornithologist called her “swiftie,” a comment on her keen, if immature mind, which bounced from subject to subject, turning on a dime like the swifts he studied. Last summer, one of the young biologists, a cute, bookish boy, claimed her elegant, streamlined shape compared well with the swift’s. The awkward compliment made her laugh. She thought the word “lanky” was enough of a description. Her mind was more disciplined now.
The male bird called again, and Anne heard a whoosh overhead as a drab female Klamath magpie swooped onto the nub of a broken branch. The male called again, showing his blood-red throat patch. The lady bird lingered. The male spread his wings in an invitation. They tussled.
Anne was elated at the mating. This population of Klamath magpies, the last known on earth, just might make it through another year. She yawned, tired from the long day, and she grew hungry in anticipation of her father’s basic, delicious cooking.
Coming home, Dad.
I broke out a jar of my pasta sauce. Pasta’s boiling on the hot plate.
Bill Penn made gallons of Anne’s favorite Italian sauce from the tomatoes they didn’t sell at the farmer’s market, but the smell of smoke drowned out her anticipation. Two fixed-wing aircraft roared overhead up the valley. Anne called up the Brier Valley news chan, and she found live images of a forest fire 10 kilometers upwind under attack by the tankers. The images broke up in her minds-eye display.
Anne, I’ve got a problem. Her father’s message broke into her minds-eye. “Anne, are you there?” He never uses that voice unless something’s wrong. “Anne, answer me.”
“Switch to voice,” Anne commanded the com stud in her ear. “I’m here, Dad. What’s wrong?”
“Call 9-1-1. I’ve got a fire in the kitchen. The extinguisher is exhausted.” His voice was calm, if clipped.
“Did you say ‘fire?’”
“I’m rigging up a hose. I need you here.”
He spoke in his sailor’s voice, the one he used to give orders, the one that gave others confidence. “What about Maxie? Where is she?”
“I don’t know where the dog is. Get down here now, please.”
She scrambled across an old stream bed and ducked under a fence. Despite his even tone, she heard impatience, and it magnified her anxiety. Her house was a hundred yards away, and a thin plume of black smoke rose from behind it. She’d lived there all her life. Everything she owned was there. The woodcut. Please God, no.
Anne remembered her father’s order and directed her attention to her com. “Emergency numbers. Call 9-1-1.”
“McCall County emergency services. Can we help you?”
I can handle this. “My house is on fire. It’s in the kitchen.” A tremble in her voice betrayed her fear.
The emergency dispatcher confirmed Anne’s coordinates sent to the dispatcher when Anne made the 9-1-1 call. “The Penn ranch, William Penn?”
“Yes, that’s right. Hurry, please.”
“Fire units on their way, ma’am.”
Anne ran to the far side of the house. Her father was spraying water from a garden hose into the kitchen though an open window. An electric pump labored, drawing water from an aluminum horse trough, but the stream was weak. That will never put out the fire. Sparks curled up over the eave and landed on the roof. Anne felt useless as the water hissed off the shingles. If I can save the woodcut, I don’t care if the whole place goes up. She approached the kitchen steps, putting her hand up to block the heat.
“Stay away from the kitchen,” Anne’s father bellowed. “Damn this piece-of-shit pump. I’m going to start the gasoline pump.”
The thought of rescuing her father’s precious gift vanished. “No, Dad. You can’t do that. The cops—”
“To hell with them. I’ll do what I have to do.” Bill Penn headed toward the shed where they hid the obsolete engine. His intricate tattoos shone through his water-soaked t-shirt. In the shade of the outbuilding, Maxie whined. The ranch’s old basset hound was frightened, but unhurt.
“No, Dad, you can’t risk it. What if the cops show up? You know what the judge said.”
“Screw the judge. This is all I have.” He pointed at the burning house. “It’s all we have.”
Fear for her gift returned, even as flames licked the walls of her home and threatened everything else she owned. Her father found the woodcut in an antique shop in Port Simpson a year after they stopped hearing from her mother. It was a page in a book of poems published in the 1820s. Frayed, yellowed, but preserved under glass, the print showed a vigorous English sailor and a girl child of four or five reaching out to embrace each other. To Anne’s eye, the sailor looked exactly like her father: pleasant face, strong arms, rough around the edges. The gift marked the moment her anger toward her mother began to fade. For 15 years, the artwork hung in the kitchen, above the table where father and daughter ate their meals. More than two hundred years ago, an artist had captured their love and respect for each other. The thought of losing the image tore at Anne.