This is the first novella in the TOABF series, in terms of the timeline it’s set somewhere in the middle. You can find it here.
They sat becalmed on the infinite glass of the quiescent South Atlantic. The ship was still over the deeps below, pulling the sun’s energy into itself, grinding, processing and refining centuries of junk into something useful. Marine Reconstruction and Recovery plant The Retreat was powering away in the bright sunshine. Its curved mirror arrays focusing heat for power generation and cycles of food production. The ship was huge, a vast agglomeration of four already large vessels assembled to create the whole plant. Inside each were various modules that could be changed and moved around depending on the current purpose. Small cranes for reconfiguration dotted the edges or could be unfolded when required but for now were stowed away as part of the deck superstructure.
The ship had a mind of its own, autonomous and thinking for itself. It also had a small human crew that helped it. Human foils for its mind, keeping it from developing bizarre notions like some of its predecessors. The crew were there because of the isolation, they had come to The Retreat to actually retreat from the world. They had come to practice in the deep lonely place and meet goals practical and spiritual.
Eric Tesla stayed in full lotus on per mat and slowly became aware of the shrine in front of per, enjoying the stillness and the unbroken view behind it all the way to the endless horizon. It seemed almost close, here, no sense of scale and even though xe was relatively high up in Observation Tower One there was no detail.
Off in the distance there was a gentle hum, xe could hear faint hints of the threshers’ great maws opening and closing, the massive Archimedes’ screws pulling the two-hundred-year plastic detritus into the factory for processing. In a couple of weeks, the loop boats would turn up and tow the processed blocks away for reuse, as well as taking the food from the hydroponic systems with them to feed whichever part of the Malvinas outreach population was closest.
Eric had finished the visualisation part of per practice and had been deep in the slow concentration of holding it after the mantras. It was okay to be disturbed but xe couldn’t work out what had brought them back up to the world around them.
Xe listened some more, watching per breathing, and gradually allowing per mind to pull the threads of what xe had been holding in per inner vision back together. Wheels within wheels and the overpowering light of compassion radiating out across the world.
Then, faintly, over the threshing hum, xe realised xe could hear Julia Sky calling out for help.
Xe quickly said per closing prayers and stood up, careful to make sure per numb legs didn’t trick them into falling over while xe wasn’t paying attention to them, the perennial problem with meditating for long periods of time.
Xe put per ship belt back on and turned up the open band volume.
“Julia? Are you calling? What’s wrong?”
Everybody wore location monitors, but xe would have had to go back into the console to ask Retreat where Julia was, just asking was quicker.
“Bay thirty-six, I’m down on the beach. Can you gather some help and bring a stretcher?”
“What is it?”
“Some kind of castaway, might be in a bad way, or might just be swallowed a lot of seawater.”
“Be there soon as.”
Eric checked the roster and headed for shift three’s accommodation. It was on the way. Something was way off, Julia was on the same shift Eric was and they were all in Meditation Retreat for another couple of days. Where were shift three?
Xe stumbled a little on the narrow corkscrew stairs coming down from the platform, smiling to himself as the feeling started to creep back into per ankles.
Behind them the incense and candles xe had lit several hours earlier eventually started to gutter out, throwing gentle tendrils of smoke up past the serene statues of the Buddha and the other guides and saints from more recent times.
Eric didn’t know shift three that well, there was no reason to. Each shift was on The Retreat for different reasons, different traditions making up the crew. Most of the ship was fully controlled by its mind but four small shift groups alternated across the months so that humans could find and repair anything needed, as well as do things only humans can do reliably, like pull people out of the sea.
Each group practiced their retreating differently. Some as small groups, some individuals. Some had long years of practice to finish to meet their spiritual goals, others just wanted to be away from the harsh memories of the crush after the crash that came when nine billion people could no longer feed themselves.
The Retreat was a large vessel, larger than the biggest oil tankers built back when people built such things. When it was commissioned people said it was a good thing that the old military yards were being used to make things that were going to pull at least some of the rubbish out of the sea. It was going to take many years to even begin to make a dent in it. All that expertise and human cleverness was finally being used to clear up messes instead of creating them.
The ship grew food using a massive hydroponic system powered by the sun and the heat from the plastic processing systems. As it slowly moved around the South Atlantic Mess, as it had become to be called, the feeder ships came and took the compressed floating blocks of plastic and the food created back to what now counted for civilisation.
The rotating drum sails were still today, the weather was calm and there was no hurry to go anywhere. Eric didn’t have the faintest idea where the ship was, apart from somewhere in the South Atlantic.
Eric had tried to call shift three and got no response. Their control centre was on the way so xe decided to pick up the rolling stretcher from there and try and see what was stopping them from responding.
“Do I need to bring anything else?”
“Painkillers maybe. Call up a trauma medic on the blink and bring a telepresence set.”
“There’s nobody at Centre Three.”
“I’m coming as fast as I can. Have you called anyone else?”
“You were the only one I managed to raise.”
“Here,” the ship replied.
“Where is everybody?”
“They snuck out somehow. It looks like you two are the only ones left.”
None of the doors locked – there was no point and it was dangerous in an emergency. Constant surveillance from the watching mind and locator belts made shutting people out pointless. There was one secure room in case somebody became dangerous, and the powerful drugs were locked away behind paired keys to keep temptation from people who might be weak, but that was it.