Small People

This is a short science fiction story I am working on – inspired by an article about gigantic solar farms planned in Africa to earn money by exporting electricity to other countries. “But what about the people who already live there?” I thought.

 

 

Anyway. I hope you enjoy it. Any comments on how to improve it gratefully received. It’s about 3000 words.

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Small People

 

The setting sun cast lurid orange over the family standing confused in the thickening dusk. Behind them machines bigger than elephants lurched through what had been their village, stirring up choking dust. The family winced with each crash.

“Go,” said the man in the plastic helmet, impatiently. “There is nothing for you here.”

Otto took Inna’s hand. The land ahead stretched out, dry and featureless except for scrubby, thorny bushes – too small to give succour or shade.

“Where?” she asked.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “That is not my concern. This land is no longer yours. Go, before the soldiers come.”

Otto saw there was no chance to argue. The machines were too big, they were too many. One family cannot fight against the government, if it chooses to sell land to foreign investors. The family had thought the land was theirs, but they were wrong. They were too small to own land.

“What will it become?” she asked.

“A solar farm. It will harvest energy from the sun to make the lights shine and the factories work in big cities. Now go.” Other men in plastic helmets emerged from the dust. Some of them had guns. In the light from the setting sun, they looked alien and cruel.

 

The family made it a little way into the foothills before they stopped. Grandmother slumped to the ground, dropping her sticks. She hadn’t walked so far from the farm in a decade. Silently, the family arrayed themselves on the hard ground, taking blankets from their bags, sharing the food that they had brought. The goats they had brought with them were tied to stakes in the scrubby yellow grass. Otto shivered, and drew Inna to her under the blanket for warmth. Her feet ached. The cold air carried noises from the plain – steel screeching, the sound of houses falling, little livelihoods erased.

 

The family stirred as the first fingers of sun brushed their faces. Otto stood and stretched the kinks out of her back. The grass beside her was wet with dew and she tore a handful to clean her face and body. She turned to look back the way they had come and gasped. Where there had once been homes and trees, was dust and more dust and piles of debris. Interspersed with gleaming piles of metal and glass, ready to be formed. A hundred families hunkered in the foothills, shivering.

 

Inna emerged from the blanket face puffy with sleep, and rummaged in their pack for something to eat. “Go, find water,” she said, and he bounded over the rocks, on sure brown, pink soled feet. Other small children followed, shrieking with excitement. Some of the men were strapping crampons to their feet; they were trying to find a way over the mountains. Nobody had been over the mountains for years, but there were towns there. There would be shelter and places to work – if a pass could be found.

 

To the left, a broad  featureless concrete wall rose up to touch the clouds, dwarfing the people below. Most of the families had left when the river was dammed up. Otto’s family, and some others, had been able to sink wells. They had had trees, which provided fruit in season and shade all year round. Without the shade, water evaporated too quickly for the plants to grow. Now, there was nothing. Otto joined some of the others, helping to light a fire and drag some rocks together for shade and shelter. They had enough food for a week, or maybe two. There were the goats, and there was grass.

 

Behind her, light flashed off the machines crawling across the desert, black tracks expanding after them  like spiders spinning a web.

 

 

 

It was dusk of the fifth day when the strangers arrived. Dusty and travel worn, three thin men with goatskin water bottles. Grandmother saw them first and roused the other women. They gathered round silently.

“Greetings,” said the stranger. “From Sky family.” The women relaxed. Sky family were farmers too, or had been. The stranger said that they had found a spring. There were some herbs that could be eaten. They had chickens for eggs, but no goats for milk. Their men, too, were searching for a pass. Might it be better to work together?

 

By the twentieth day, there were two hundred people gathered in the foothills. The camp boasted fire pits and tents made with stretched blankets and goat hide. People were weaving baskets and making bricks and cups out of earth. They ground grains and made hard cakes, goat cheese and fermented milk. The children ran back and forth all day searching for wood and dung and herbs. The men had found a way up into the mountains, although not yet across. They worked in shifts, taking turns to come back to the camp to rest. Otto began to feel safer. When she looked out across the plains, the tracks had become a network, a grid of silver and black squares. The sunlight seemed to pool fiercely over the apparatus, like liquid. Thick bundles of cables spun between the banks of panels and out into the distance. Perhaps it was her imagination, but she could hear humming, the air in that direction thick and sticky with charge.

 

Three months in, the men found a cave system in the mountains. It was dangerous to explore; they didn’t have lights and there could be bears or puma or other fierce, wild animals. All water had to be carried which limited the amount of time an individual could stay. Little by little, they mapped it. There was a system of smaller caves and below it, a vast chamber. There was an opening above the dam, too high to bring water up. Inside the mountain, it was not so fiercely cold.

 

On the plain below, the machines had gone and all of the crashing and screeching had ceased. Rivers of sunlight swept over the panels, so that it hurt to look at them. If you looked closely you could see dots moving around the tracks, pausing now and then. Otto looked closely. If not people, then what?

 

One day Inna vanished. He had not been seen by the people on the foothills, or those in the mountain. Otto looked out across the plain. That night she took two skins of water and a handful of grain biscuits and started walking.

 

It was nearly morning by the time she reached the solar farm. Fearing discovery, she lay down in the grass and squinted into the early morning gloom. The panels were eights feet or ten feet high, three feet apart, a uniform forest of plastic and coated steel. Between them were tracks, and wires. The air thrummed to her ears, laden with static. Somewhere inside, something moved. Inna!

 

She scrambled to her feet and ran towards the movement, calling out. Under the panels the air was heavy and moist, the ground cool beneath her feet. Visibility was still poor; mist hung under the structure, unable to evaporate. Otto was almost face to face with the robot before she realised what she was looking at.

 

It was small – a bucket shaped torso, and four arms – two of which were occupied above the panel, presumably cleaning dust, while the other two hung limp. There was a dome shaped head with one shining eye, which clicked and turned towards her. She dropped hastily to the ground, out of its line of sight. The robot was attached to the track and could not come after her. It hesitated above her while the spare arms groped sightlessly; easily avoided. After a few minutes they retracted and the robot sped back up the track a few metres, repeating the cleaning motions.

 

Otto breathed again and withdrew. She had no frame of reference, but she could see that the robot had a purpose – maintaining the panels. As long as she kept out of sight and away from the tracks, it would not hurt her. She turned her attention to her surroundings.

 

This far under the panels, the ground was not only moist, but lush with vegetation. Illuminated by shafts of light from above the tracks, the shaded areas under the panels hosted a vigorous profusion of growth. Crisp stems covered her feet in juices. Otto knelt and carefully began to pluck leaves to take back for identification. She saw spinach, cassava, faba beans, chick peas and okra – sprung from dormant seeds left form long before, when the river ran here. Here and there a sapling sprung up – some taller than her already.

 

She wandered further under the panels, losing track of time and the distance she had walked. The solar farm was huge – it was difficult to conceive where all the materials had come to build it  – the government had moved mountains, literally, for this project. Sunlight was being captured on an epic scale, so that hundreds of miles away people could light their houses and run their factories, while her family scratched a living in the foothills. She carried on walking, calling softly for Inna.   Once she thought she heard a bird call, and several times the undergrowth rustled as if a rat or rabbit was passing. Several times the track hummed and a robot trundled past, focussed on its work. And underneath, a paradise.

 

After an hour, or two, or three, she came across Inna curled under a sapling, mouth smudged with the evidence of happy eating. It was nearly dark by the time they found their way back to the families in the foothills.

 

It was a subject of hot debate whether the families should settle in the mountains, where the government would never go, or under the solar farm, where food was so easy to grow. You couldn’t build a life under the panels, or not much of one, where the air sizzled and the maintenance robots with their camera eyes conducted hourly circuits. But how could you live in the mountains, with no light and no water? If you travelled between the two you would draw attention – although the solar farm seemed mostly unmanned, vehicles could be seen occasionally moving around during daylight. In the experience of the families, people with Jeeps often also had guns. The mountain was hard to climb – you couldn’t carry much with you.

 

Under cover of darkness, parties went to the panels to collect as much food as possible. Beans and fruit were dried and stored in baskets. And in the meantime, the families thought, and thought. And all the time, other families joined them. Hundreds and hundreds of people had been displaced in this thousand acre engineering project. Hundreds more had been scraping a desperate living without enough water.

 

Some of the people who came had been to school in far away towns. Some of them had books. Some of them had worked for the government or foreign companies or on large farms, and understood electricity. Some of them had been made to labour on the creation of the dam, although it did not benefit them. While the others were storing food, these people sat together chewing cola nuts, and talked and thought.

 

If there were light in the mountain caves, if there were water, then you could live there. For light you needed electricity, but how could you make it? How could you store it?

 

Otta and Inna  were part of the first group of scavengers. They were told to find insulated wire, and iron. There was plenty of both in the farm, but you had to be careful how you took it, because the repair robots could spot a pattern of theft and refer it to the owners. The best way was to go right to the edge of the farm, far away from where anyone was working, and all of you to jump up and swing on a panel until the supports buckled. The robot couldn’t fix that, and the whole structure would be replaced. You didn’t take anything then, because it would be spotted. You just waited for the truck to come out with the replacement, and followed it surreptitiously when it took the broken supports back . There was a pile of discarded material by the east edge of the farm. You could wait until night and take what you needed.

 

It was hard work, separating and carrying the heavy cables, but the children were growing strong. They had better food than they had ever eaten, and they had hope.

 

The parties of adults roamed farther. They travelled for days, for weeks, on foot and by bus. They went to towns and cities where they bartered and stole lamps, rope, solder and tools. Others scavenged by the dam for disused piping. They were many, and they spread out across a countryside which had once been theirs but was now delineated into thousand acre squares owned by foreign companies, protected by armed guards and soldiers, growing food they would never eat and generating electricity they would never have the tools to use.

 

The thefts were so widespread and random that the companies didn’t consider comparing notes. They increased security and considered their job done. And slowly, up in the mountain, down by the farm, and on the concrete banks of the dam, under darkness and unobserved, people worked.  Little children wound wire around bent iron. Old men and women sealed pipes with clay or carefully packed young plants into baskets generously covered with soil.

 

Occasionally a drone would fly past overhead, and the people would look up in fear. Camera or weapons? But there was never any sign of wrongdoing. In the daytime, the people went about their business, preparing food and minding their children. 

 

Until one night, a whisper was raised, and it spread throughout the families. One by one and ten by ten, they assembled in the foothills. Silently, each man, woman and child took as much as they could carry;  baskets, blankets and tools, and in silence, in the dark, they followed each other up the treacherous mountain pass.

 

In the distance there was a great roar of machinery powering to life.

 

The sun rose the next morning on an unmarked landscape. The next drone to fly overhead saw nothing – no encampments in the foothill, no movement. No sign of habitation at all. Everything pristine and quiet as the sunlight pooled in great molten sheets of light around the panels of the solar farm.

 

If the drone had flown past the dam, it might have seen a tiny trickle of water, running down the side of the mountain, like a giant’s tear.

 

In the mountain itself, the caves echoes with the sound of a great celebration. Men and women were drinking fermented milk, and eating injera, cooked on a hot plate. Children were hanging hides and blankets to make individual rooms. Bright electric lamps were suspended from wires across the cave.

 

Otto stood at the back of the caves and stared in wonder at the vast, peaceful lake of water. She could see her reflection, outlines by the brassy yellow lights – slight and strong, with a proud nose, arching eyebrows, and a halo of black hair. Behind her she could hear the bustle of her family, and the others, setting up their new homes and food stores, tending to the plants.

 

She gazed into the water and thought about how it had got there; how the wire they had stolen was wound into coils around iron formed into donuts. How these had spent the night jimmied into place around the power lines running from the solar farm past the dam, and how the induced energy had powered pumps, now diverted to pushing hundreds of tonnes of water out of the dam through painstakingly assembled pipes hidden in the undergrowth, and into the mountain cavern. She thought of the men in the first light of morning, removing the equipment and putting everything back the way it was. And the water released slowly, through   tiny pipes in the side of the mountain, pushing hand made paddle wheels at hundreds of revolutions per minute, powering the lights reflected in the lake. Powering stoves to cook on and light to read and grow by.

 

Inna ran up beside her and caught her hand, laughing. He’d grown so much since they left the farm. One day he would have children and they too, like all small people, would have to struggle against big companies. But in the cracks between the concrete, life always finds a way. 

 

 

 

 

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