The pirate ship flew a skull and crossbones, but there were no ragged black sails or cannons, and it didn’t cut threw the water with sharp edges. This was a different sort of warrior vessel, a modified tug with a cheerfully rounded, toy-boat-like hull that bobbed up and down with the pattern of the swell. Painted in bright camouflage patterns and dragging an enormous rusted tanker, there was something almost comical about this painfully slow procession.
Hari Dash stood on the bridge trying to stay out of the way – the captain had cut the engine now and the crew darted about in preparation for anchor. They were close. Hari could just make out the red hull of the Soterion on the horizon, and the faintest hint of its yellow crane. Beyond that, somewhere just beyond the horizon, he knew was the island of Haven, formerly known as Tumaluao, where according to the world’s press he was now living.
He imagined palm fronds in the breeze, white sand beaches, postmodern houses with their infinity pools dug into rocky outcrops. He had never had the slightest intention of setting foot on the paradise shores of Haven, had never heard of the place until the documents were leaked, and had certainly never been invited to live there. Even though, he often thought grimly, a climate engineer would have been a rather useful addition to the eccentric little kingdom of elites gathered there to survive the coming apocalypse. Perhaps they didn’t want to survive the apocalypse, merely profit from it.
This had been a painful journey, not least because of the terrible seasickness he had suffered as they battled Pacific storms. For days he had wished he was on the tanker behind them, filled with helium, sulphates and polythene scrabbled from a handful of co-conspirators along the way, vast and calm on the surface as the little tug followed every contour of the ocean up and down. On the way they had passed several volcanic islands rising out of the sea, more painful reminders of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption that had inspired his thesis. Nature had tricked him all those years ago, and humans had tricked him now.
The last time he had made this journey, five years ago, it had been under such different circumstances. He and his wife and daughters had flown to the Soterion on a military helicopter, shaking hands with a row of heads of state, and then he had launched the first balloon with the world watching. Made his shy speech, the speech that had launched his unfortunate moniker.
Who will be the Veilmaker? We will be the Veilmakers, together!
The thought of his family cut like a knife, but there would be time to mourn them later. And if he could pull this off, there was a chance, however small, that one day he would see them again.
The tanker was anchored around a kilometre away from the Soterion, far enough away to protect against drift, close enough that they could link a pipeline. Hari and his small team of environmentalist volunteers seated themselves in the tender, were lowered into the rough sea and then set off towards the giant floating steel platform that was to be their home for.. for how long none of them knew… perhaps forever. None of them knew the future, except that this was the only chance at a future. The tender was a speedboat but it was forced to navigate slowly because the approach to the Soterion was surrounded by the debris of associated projects. Experiments had been carried out in a number of areas – iron dumping, biosequestration, plastics collection, tidal harnessing – so that the place had functioned as a sort of floating climatology skunkworks. All abandoned now, so that the tender was manoeuvring itself through a world of shipwrecks. Towards the biggest shipwreck of all, the Soterion which, Hari estimated, had last functioned six weeks before. He had got here as fast as he could.
By the time they were installed on the ship it was late afternoon, and the sky was ablaze, cirrus clouds speckled black against a wash of red and violets. The ship was deserted. As Hari and his nervous young skeleton crew ventured down corrugated steel corridors, the clanking echoes of their footsteps were like the rattling chains of ghosts. Beds had been left unmade and the cabins smelled stale. Food had been left to rot in the fridges.
On the bridge Hari re-activated the generators and reset the semi-automated launching system, his mind now focused on auxiliary weight arrangements, buoyancy calculations, balloon loading bays, sonder units, gas-filled conduits, payload lines. He knew how it all worked because he had designed it in his doctorate. This was the exact design – that a naïve boy had created, and even that boy had never intended it to be made and used.
The ship was as long as two football fields, and after Hari had re-activated the generators he had to hurry, almost at a run, to reach the crane at the other end of the ship. On a raised white platform, a yellow crane was beginning to lift a huge white piece of polythene out of a container. Cords slowly unfurled and it began to take shape, an elongated sphere that hissed as it filled with helium. As the balloon inflated the crane moved back on its wheeltrack away from the structure, giving the cords space to eventually become taut. Once the payload lines were taut, the balloon would be released automatically. The only human involvement was for Hari to ensure the sulphate canister was attached by carabiner.
Out on the deck the wind had got up and huge black clouds were rolling in, portending an evening windstorm later. Hari stumbled as he ran across the helipad with its huge painted H, where he had landed in triumph five years before. The launching system corrected for wind, but between the roar of its motor and the roar of the wind, the noise was deafening, and he didn’t hear the speedboats and helicopter coming until it was too late. It would always have been too late.
In a panic he ran for the launcher, determined to send up one more balloon as it reached its final launch position. He lurched for the platform and almost in one movement securely clipped the waiting canister to the balloon. But at that moment the first shot rang out and he fell backwards into the balloon ropes, becoming tangled in the ropes by one leg. He was hoisted up by his ankle and hung awkwardly, dangling almost upside down, grasping at things like a circus act gone wrong. Deep red blood dripped onto the white platform.
The balloon was released, and with enough helium to carry an unexpected extra load, gained height rapidly, like a child’s party balloon let go by mistake. Hari was carried, upside down, up towards the overworld, up towards Veil he had created by mistake. The sky was ablaze with colour and his body was silhouetted black against neon. Eventually he would see the curvature of the Earth. Eventually the balloon would veer west towards the land mass of America, and the Grand Canyon would be visible. Where Rex had just fallen, as Hari rose. But he would be long dead by then.