Fire Bird

What flashed through my mind as I fell was the image of a bird, plummeting down from the sun, its feathers like fire, with all the colours of the rainbow in those flames as it soared through the sky.

When I came to, the world had gone black. I could feel hundreds of legs and proboscises all over me. Quick as I could, I jumped up and immediately collapsed in a flash of pain. My left leg! I had to get the bugs off me, so standing on my right leg, I shook and brushed with my hand as the pain hit me again and again. I had to get them off me.

I had to get me off the ground. Hauling myself up onto the lowest branch, swinging my good leg up, I ripped off my top and shook it out. Boots next. Lucky the laces rotted away months ago. A good shake of my trouser legs would have to do. Too much pain. Rummaging for my knife in my pocket, I got a purchase on whatever was burrowing into my arm and hooked it out. I wanted to lick the wound but it was too risky. I rolled up my shirt and wrapped my arm as tightly as I could. The smell of blood was almost as dangerous as the smell of carbon dioxide. I was being eaten alive as it was.

I had to move higher up. If I was lucky I might make it back to my pack, which if I was lucky was where I’d left it so suddenly, way up there. I needed water, salt and my insect net or I might not last till morning.

My leg hurt like hell and I felt dizzy but up I went, feeling my way in the dark. My injured leg slowed me, but so did the fear of a branch breaking if I was too quick. Everything was so eaten away these days. Also, the tree was covered in wet moss and I knew if I slipped again that might be the end. It seemed so much further this time, but at last my groping hand brushed against the canvas of my pack where it rested against the trunk.

First things first. There was the insect net. It was like a tent that went all around me and zipped up. I always seemed to trap a few things inside, but it kept the worst at bay. There was my water bottle. I took a good swig. There was the little jar of salt. I unwrapped my arm and sprinkled salt until I felt it sting. There was the last shirt I possessed. On it went, as did the top half of the protective overalls I’d stolen earlier.

I leaned back against the trunk, my left leg along the narrow branch and my right dangling. I had thought I’d tie myself to the trunk to stop myself falling in my sleep, but once in place, I realised that I hadn’t figured out how I could do that and be inside the net. But I was in so much pain with my leg and my arm that sleep was unlikely anyway.

So there I sat and mulled it all over. This hadn’t been my plan at all. The plan had been to raid the Residence and get back to our settlement and that be that.

Han, spying the day before, had spotted that the little red light on a camera overlooking one of their food-growing domes was no longer blinking. Perhaps water had got in and damaged it. We were surprised they hadn’t fixed it, but perhaps they needed to get a part sent over from another Residence. Time was of the essence, so that night we struck.

The Residences were like networks of linked geodesic domes, built by the wealthy as it became clear that things were going very badly – food scarcity, social collapse, weather.

At first the domes were only used to grow food, now that there was less direct sunlight and a lot more rain. They were made of toughened polycarbonate and fortified with a high fence. They were self-sufficient with power from wind turbines and systems for collecting and purifying rain water. The wealthy kept adding to them until they were the size of small towns.

As the large towns and cities became uninhabitable, being too near rivers or the sea, the wealthy moved into the Residences.

In the early days, Outsiders, living nearby in houses, worked in the Residences as domestic servants or in the horticulture domes. But after the birds disappeared and the insect population bounced back with a vengeance and the warm and wet climate grew warmer and wetter, we grew sicker and the Insiders shut us out and did the work themselves.

There were battles then, and many of us died. They had guns and we had sticks. But they had food and medicine and dryness and we had none of those things.

We could forage but it was a poor diet and the knowledge our grandparents might have had about which plants and bugs were edible and which were poisonous had been forgotten, so we had to use trial and error and yet more of us died while we learned.

So when we saw a chance to raid the nearby Residence, it was a chance we had to take.

We got over the fence OK and then, placing the sharpened point of a big flint against the edge of a low pane of polycarbonate and striking it with a much bigger rock, we broke in.

The food was good. Modified for maximum nutrition, I could feel its energy as I swallowed. I stashed as many leaves as I could into my pack. Sol found a box of weather-proof protective suits and we had those too, one each. My raincoat had stopped being waterproof a long time ago. This was great.

But then they came.

The door crashed open and I dived to the ground behind a plant bed. Quick as I could, I wriggled out of the broken panel while the bullets flew. I stayed low but fast. When I reached the fence, I skirted around until I was away from that dome. Then with one good jump and a clamber I was out.

I had no idea where I was going. Nights are usually dark these days. Sometimes the clouds show a little lighter where they’re hiding the moon, but tonight the new moon was only a day old.

I knew there was no point going back to the settlement. The Insiders were certain to seek retribution, even if everyone was lying dead in that horticulture dome at the Residence.

Everyone but me.

I kept up a good pace all through the night. When the sky started to lighten ahead of me, it was a relief.

After a few hours of daylight, I saw some old houses and made my way over. They were in poor shape. It doesn’t rain all the time, not quite, but when it’s not raining the air is still damp and everything rots. Any structural timber that the insects haven’t eaten rots away. Structural steel rusts. Bricks crumble. The things that survive best are aluminium window frames and doors.

One of the houses had a lean-to at one side that was fairly intact. It had a solid, tiled floor and some chairs that looked like they were made of woven plastic. I had a quick look around but there were no signs of recent human activity. I sat on the long chair, got into my net, lay down and was asleep straight away.

A sharp pain in my foot woke me. I jumped up and saw a rat run off. I had a look and there was a bite out of my big toe. I used a little water to wash it and dabbed a little salt on it. I should have kept my boots on. I knocked the bugs out of them, put them on, packed up my net and set off again.

Over the hill, to my left was an expanse of water, several kilometres wide. That would be the Trent, I guessed. From Derby (or where Derby now lay submerged) to where it ran into the sea near Gainsborough, the river was more like a lake. I turned away from it and headed in what I presumed was an easterly direction.

By twilight I was in the wood. That’s a rather romantic description. Most trees had fallen prey to a combination of insect damage and diseases carried by the insects. Mostly the ‘wood’ consisted of the rotting, diseased remains of trees, some still half-alive, surrounded by ferns, sedges and the horse-tails that seemed to be taking over everywhere. But here and there stood trees that seemed to be resistant to the insects.

I found one that looked sturdy enough to hold me. It was tall, but the lowest branch was at waist height. A good climbing tree, even though it was covered in thick moss. Willow? Poplar? I don’t know – as I said, it was my Grandparents who turned their backs on nature.

The ground was seething with all sorts of creeping things and to rest on the ground, even standing, wasn’t an option. So up I climbed and, as you know, down I fell. And up I climbed again and kept vigil with my searingly painful leg through the long night.

As soon as it was light enough to see, I did some careful stretching, extracted myself from my net, shouldered my pack and started lowering myself towards the ground. It still hurt to use my left leg, but I could put some weight on it, so there was hope.

At the foot of the tree, I hobbled across to a sapling of something and cut around it with my knife until I could snap it off. I trimmed it to about two-and-a-half metres, and then cut a length of that to match against my left leg. I tore my bloodied shirt into strips and lashed the pole to my leg. With the other pole in my right hand, I limped off towards the sea.

It was slow going. Partly it was my leg, and partly the soft ground, which tried to swallow my walking stick every time I put it down.

About half-way through the afternoon I could smell the sea. It was revolting. I had been told about the rafts of decaying fish and other marine creatures that floated around on the surface of the sea, but it had to be smelled to be believed. However, the advantage of that, I had also been told, was that all that rotting flesh drew flies away from the land. In any case, there were fewer insects that could tolerate the salt in the marshes, compared with inland. Also, I could now see the other thing that had attracted me to head this way when my old life in the settlement got shot to pieces.

It was a collection of large buildings made of glass panels set in aluminium frames, a bit like the Residences but basically cuboid. All around this part of Lincolnshire, when the sea started to wash over what had been the most productive arable land in the country, farmers turned to farming insects.

It was the first Great Food Crisis and insects were seen as a good source of protein and calories, and farming them required few costly inputs. Starting with crickets, locusts and buffalo worms, this was going to be the future. If people hadn’t been starving, it might not have caught on, but for a while it was a booming industry and glass-houses like these went up all over the place, breeding an increasing range of edible insects, many of them imported exotic species.

But the cities flooded, weather changed, society collapsed into anarchy, the Insiders retreated to the Residences, and many Outsiders didn’t survive for long. The insect farms were abandoned to the storms and the floods, and the insects escaped and colonized the land left vacant by the first round of extinctions. But now, here, was somewhere I might be able to live.

I chose the house with the most intact panels. Cannibalising the other houses to repair it would give me something to do after my leg healed. But in the meantime, I would be alright with my net.

Growing around the marsh was kale, purslane and samphire. The sea itself was probably too poisonous, but there was more than enough insect life, even here, to supplement the plants in my diet. I’d get used to the smell of the sea.

My first job would be to rig up some rain-water collection, which I would do in the morning. I just about had enough left in my bottle for tonight. I also had the last of the stolen leaves. I would be OK.

Early the next morning, I stood outside looking over the marsh, and there it was. I had never seen a bird before in my life, but there it was. It looked so clean: white and grey, with dark tips on its long, outstretched wings, gliding past me with unimaginable grace, in no hurry at all. A gap opened in the cloud near the horizon and a shaft of sunrise lit the bird as if it were aflame. I hadn’t thought there could be such raw freedom and beauty in the world. It was incredible. The breath stopped in my throat and a fire of joy leapt inside me.

I’m alive. I am going to be OK.

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