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The Sky, Falling

If climate change gets so bad that we try to geoengineer our way out of it, someone is actually going to have to do the engineering. Meet the first generation of sky engineers.

If climate change gets catastrophic enough, there are a group of scientists who advocate we experiment with geoengineering—artificially cooling the planet's temperature, perhaps by seeding the clouds. Today's dispatch takes place in a perilous, tragic future where such a thing has become a necessity. From the front lines of geoengineering. -the Editor


At 0 feet, Suref sips the last of the coffee in his flask and thanks the lord for another beautiful day. The air at ground level is warm and stifling but the sky above is spotted with clouds, hanging among a vast blue expanse. Suref seals his visor and checks his tank, making sure he has plenty of oxygen. He straps in and begins the ascent.

At 10,000 feet, Suref thinks of his daughter. It is her first week at college, and she is nervous, but Suref knows she will be okay. Last night they ate dinner together as a family, in the home his daughter grew up in. It was a happy occasion, but a sad one, too. A marking of the years. Suref knows it won't be long until she's back home, though, for the long vacations. For that, he is thankful. The home he grew up in is gone now, lost beneath the waves.

At 20,000 feet, Suref reminds himself that he is as enchanted by the clouds as he was when he first started the job, all those years ago. His friends trained to be lawyers, or doctors, or teachers, but none of those things appealed to him. Since he was a child, he had always wanted to be an engineer, to work in the gap between earth and space, above the world and below the universe. To stitch the sky back together.

At 30,000 feet, he is still remembering, for some reason, how, as a child, he would come home after hours playing out in the burning sun, his clothes ripped to shreds from clambering over rocks or wrestling with his friends. How he would watch his mother take her needle and thread, and patch up the holes.

At 40,000 feet, Suref checks his fastenings and steps out onto the platform. His colleague waves at him and they shuffle past each other, swapping places, their shifts overlapping for just a few moments. There is nothing new to report; there rarely ever is. Still, Suref follows his routine, checking each piece of equipment in turn. He works in increments, slowed down by the suit that protects him from the chill in the air, and by the security measures that keep him tethered to the platform. Most of the seeding machinery is operated automatically and remotely, but there is still a need for engineers, for manual oversight. Suref is glad to be needed.

When he is done, he stands at the edge of the platform and gazes at the world around him, at the shapes and textures of the sky. It is beautiful. Then, without thinking, as though forcibly pushed by the weight of all that wonder, Suref steps backwards. His feet touch nothing but air.

At 39,994 feet something goes wrong with the straps, or the clasps, or the cords, and they fail to stop Suref's fall. He plummets through the air, leaving his stomach behind on the platform.

At 35,000 feet, Suref's back is to the earth, his face to the heavens. He knows he must move but his body is gripped by dread.

At 30,000 feet, Suref urges his body to move, and finally it does. He turns over and sees the world below him. Suref operates the parachute release, once and then again, but nothing happens. For a few moments, he forgets how to breathe.

At 20,000 feet, Suref thinks of his daughter. He sees her in fleeting images: in graduation robes receiving her degree, in smart clothes for her first day at work, with Suref's first grandchild at her breast. He feels joy and sadness in equal measure, and knows for the first time that they are the same thing, viewed from different places.

At 10,000 feet, Suref sees the whole world laid out below him. He sees the curve of the Earth, the undulating rise and fall of the landscape. He sees forests, and rivers, and cities and roads. It is a sprawling, messy, beautiful thing to take in. He wonders if anyone down there can see him.

At 1,000 feet, Suref's panic subsides. What's done is done. His heart is weighed down by sadness; for his family, who will mourn his loss, and for all the things he had yet to do. But as the ground approaches there is happiness, too, a gentle kind of gladness. Because he has already seen so much.