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Art: Jason Arias

​Rootbreakers

Michael W. Cho

Climate change ​probably​ won't lead to a total plant life takeover—but it might throw us back to the Dark Ages.

Art: Jason Arias

Once catastrophic climate change gets underway, there's no telling how it might transform the Earth's biosphere. It probably won't lead to a total lignin takeover—but it might indeed throw us back to the Dark Ages, or at least some version of them. And it makes for a hell of a story. -the Ed


Twenty-year-old Ron Park, wiry and energetic, burst into the tent-covered sleeping platform jabbering about rain.

"I'm too old to rush," Keegan said, shaving in a mirror fastened to a tree branch. A wet plop sounded on the A-frame's fabric.

"It's very gray out," Park said.

Keegan had noticed the strange quality of light as soon as his eyes had opened. "Gray's my favorite color."

It was green he couldn't stand. The world was covered in green, billions of leaves waving triumphantly over all arable land like flags of an invading army.

Once people had feared for trees. Turned out they could fend for themselves. The New Conditions had spawned new kinds, which grew as fast as bamboo and tough as ironwood. When the old nations began to break apart, the trees moved in, covering everything with green.

Gray was the color of steel, man's best weapon against lignin.

Keegan finished and pulled out a perforated brass tablet. The thin metal page was three-fourths covered with distinct scratches. He added to the marks with a stylus.

"Ninety-five days on the job. Twelve in the new year. And since the flooding started…"

"Can't we do this later?" urged Park.

They descended to the camp, which buzzed with activity. It wasn't the first rodeo for most of the boys, and they carried out their tasks of hauling, packing, wrapping, and securing efficiently, but with an edge of anxiety. Every good-sized scrap of metal was like war material in man's effort to reclaim the land—and of course, pay their salaries.

Keegan breathed deeply as a fat, warm raindrop splashed on his shoulder.

It was hot and wet as always in the Winnipeg Rain Forest. They followed the vine-strewn trail, hacking through prickly branches that had sprouted overnight, to emerge at the rim of the pit.

This was a cavity some thirty yards wide. Their vantage revealed a nearly solid mass of roots that went down at least twenty feet. Penetrating that hard, woody barrier had been the work of seventy sweaty, exhausting days. The men had chopped at the roots, sawed them, mauled them. Keegan was glad his root-breaking days were over.

Below the roots were dirt and below that, salvage—twisted, heavy pieces of steel coated with mud and rocks. By Keegan's estimate, they were just about going to break even.

"Another bad year," he said. Park nodded weakly.

And now the rainy season had come to put an end to their work.

As the rain began to fall in earnest, the workers in the pit hunched, finishing up last-minute excavations and dragging their hunks of metal up the path that wound around the pit. Two men at the bottom levered frantically at something protruding from water puckered with raindrops.

They could have used another week.

Leaving Park, Keegan checked on the barges, where a crew of men tied down equipment and salvage for the coming floods.

There was a long crusted pole, which could be made into a pipe augur for hollowing out logs for plumbing. There was a flap of sheet metal, which could mend a boiler or be the side of a box.

Most importantly, they'd recovered a few dozen wheels. A wheel could be a gear, or part of a pulley, or a component in a steam engine.

Still, they were going to be short. It was going to be tight just to pay the crew, let alone gear up for next season. He hollered at the cook to pack up. He told two guards pressed against the back of a huge tree to help the crew.

When he returned to the pit, the rain pounded his face. The last stragglers emerged, clinging to ropes as heavy raindrops pelted them and slimed the trail. Keegan's heart almost stopped to see Park going the other direction, half-running, half-sliding, his hold on the guide rope the only thing keeping him on his feet. His reckless ramble ended with a splash at the visibly-filling bottom, where a half-excavated piece of metal protruded. Park threw his weight into a pole and the tip of salvage moved in the air.

"Damn idiot!" Keegan shouted.

Keegan searched for good abacá rope to tie to a tree. He threw the other end down and it plopped into the water. Park continued to pry at the salvage. The thing in the mud was about six feet long and had an odd shape: two arms tipped with curved claws, leading down to an arrangement of cylinders attached to a wheel.

A rush of white noise came as the rain's force redoubled. Visibility dropped to five feet. It was too dangerous. In his mind's eye, Keegan saw the trail to the bottom melting away in a series of mudslides. He sighed as he clipped his belt to the rope and rappelled into the pit. His boots sunk into the soft mud at every hop, coming out with loud sucking sounds as he ripped them free.

In half a minute, he'd gained the bottom, where Park treaded muddy water. Instead of sensibly swimming over, he disappeared under the muck.

The hell! It was all Keegan, half-submerged, could do to keep his footing, the path disintegrating under him, the strong fibers of the rope the only solidity in the world. His heart pounded as rain assaulted his face, eyes, and mouth. Had Park been pulled under? Keegan sure as hell couldn't dive into that mud to rescue him; it was all he could do to hold on. A moment later, Park's muck-spattered face popped out few feet away. He took a great gasp of breath and stretched for the rope.

Keegan grabbed a handful of shirt and yanked. Park looked okay, although covered in mud, and bleeding from a long scratch on his neck. They climbed, the footing treacherous, occasional mudslides nearly washing them back into the rapidly-filling pit. At last they gained the top, and it was hard to tell who was helping who more with all the pushing and pulling and leaning.

Park rose to his knees, chest heaving, but only rested for a moment. He heaved on the rope they had just used to escape. Keegan joined in on faith. The rope kicked in their hands as if a whale were on the end of it. It scraped and tore their palms. Keegan dug in, braced himself, heaved and fought for every inch. The rain pelted him so it felt like swimming. But finally a shadow pulled free of the muck and they dragged it along the streaming mud.

The hunk of metal that had nearly been the death of them lay before them on the ground. Streaming rain washed away its muddy camouflage, revealing a chain, an engine, a wheel… jutting from one side was a thick saw blade with the teeth still intact.

It wasn't ordinary salvage. This was a drag saw. He'd heard about machines like these, in the Old Days. Keegan and Park looked at each other, and laughed. Might finally be a good year, after all. Plenty more gray where that came from.