The Birthday Present

Submitted into Contest #44 in response to: Write a story that starts with a life-changing event.... view prompt



It was my 45th birthday and, for the first time, it seemed I might get a present worth having. Only now could I hope that my work would change the future for my children, if not for me.

Forty years of desperation, maybe longer for I cannot remember too much of those first few years. I do know that they were full of stress for my parents and I lost a brother, I never knew. But even in those early years I was already aware that my world was changing.

Slowly the outer air lock opened. It always seemed slow but I had to remind myself that it weighed more than three tons. The opening grew larger and we sensed the heat. Of course, we couldn’t feel it, our transport was hermetically sealed and air conditioned but that could never completely match the psychological impact of being outside of the warren and exposed, in a real sense, to conditions on the surface. Conditions that meant that there was no longer any life or vegetation. Even at mid-morning there was only minimal light from the sun and we needed the transport’s headlights.

“Commander, we are ready to roll. Air temperature at ninety-five degrees, wind speed one hundred knots and steady.”

“Roger that, Bill. Let’s get moving.”

And, so it was, that on that day, April 15th 2065, the first mission aimed at reversing the damage began.

I was born in April 2020. My parents were living near Brisbane at the time and lost everything to the bush fires that had ravaged much of Australia the summer before. By the time I was a year old we had moved back to England and the rest of our family in the Midlands.

Although the environment was high on the agenda, around most of the world, progress to reduce the impact of human activities was painfully slow. Even before I had reached my teens it was becoming apparent that only major changes would have any chance of success. Despite this the two largest economies, China and the USA, seemed unable to deliver any changes until both were struck by major climate related events.

For more than a decade the annual hurricane season had been getting more dangerous but in 2037 two hurricanes of unprecedented power struck the southern United States. Wind speeds of over two hundred and fifty miles per hour drove the storms far deeper inland than normal. By the time they could be downgraded to non-hurricane strength most of Florida had been overwhelmed by floods and destruction. Over sixty thousand people lost their lives and not a single theme park remained intact.

On the other side of the globe, typhoons of similar strength crossed Taiwan on to mainland China. Hong Kong suffered most but Shanghai and Beijing were both hit hard. The death toll could only be estimated but must have been in the hundreds of thousands.

The side effects of these storms were also catastrophic. In Europe the western coasts, from Ireland down to Portugal, were battered by hurricane strength winds. Unprepared, thousands more lost their lives. In the far east, Manilla and the Philippines suffered major loss of life and even Australia was hit.

Within a year, governments, around the world, were forced into drastic measures. With surprisingly little resistance, personal forms of transport such as cars were banned. Public transport became entirely electrically powered and all energy production was switched to solar and wind power. Three years after the storms carbon-based energy was almost entirely eliminated from the major economies. In the third world there was more resistance though migration north and south from the equatorial regions was increasing.

For me, personally, this was a time of hard work studying environmental issues alongside physics at school. This against a background of fear that climate change was now irreversible.

In 2038 I started a degree course at a time of great turmoil. Even the radical actions taken to eliminate the use of fossil fuels did not seem to have done more than slow the changes already underway and sea levels were rising as the polar caps melted.

Scientists had warned that we would see rises in sea levels of as much as six metres. As ever they had overstated the number, a little, for they had been unable to account for the impact of the Antarctic’s land mass being freed from the weight of the ice. Seismic activity grew rapidly and by 2046 more than thirty volcanoes had erupted around the south pole. The dust thrown miles into the air gradually started to cover the world in clouds.

Harvests failed through lack of sunshine but at the same time the heat generated accelerated the extremes of climate change. The levels of greenhouse gases proved to be at a point where the effects were self-sustaining. Global temperatures rose at a terrifying rate. The highs of mid-forties seen in Australia around the time of my birth rapidly became the norm all year round and even in the old temperate zones fifty-degree levels were regularly measured.

The Amazon rain forest burned as the tropics saw their temperatures regularly exceed sixty degrees and sometimes top seventy-five. Rainfall became rare and when it did occur was limited to short periods of torrential downpours. While sea levels rose, flooding all low-lying land, the process stopped short of the feared levels but not for any good reason. Quite simply more water was evaporating and being caught in the upper edges of the atmosphere. Hundreds of millions died of starvation or sunstroke, not only in the tropics.

During this time, we saw both the best and worst of human behaviour. Riots in many cities where air conditioning was often limited to the rich but, elsewhere, help and homes offered to those in greatest need. In the end though, the northern countries were finally forced to close their borders against the flow of migrants, using the military to hold back hordes of desperate people before something snapped in the Middle East. Old hatreds were used to fuel dissent and nuclear war broke out between Israel and Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were caught up in a conflict that would last only a few hours but would leave the entire region uninhabitable for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

It was soon apparent to all that mankind faced extinction and action was finally taken to complete projects that had been started, quietly, more than ten years before and a series of underground caverns were completed across the globe. There were to be six in England and Wales, two in Scotland and many more across Europe and North America. We assumed China had also built some but their borders had long since been closed to the outside world.

When it came to it one of the hardest decisions to be made was how to select the few who might be saved. At the time of my birth there were around sixty million people in the United Kingdom. This number had already fallen by more than half by 2050 but the warrens could only hold some ten thousand each. And how do you pick eighty thousand people from twenty-five million?

In the end it was decided that no-one over the age of forty would be selected. Most were picked because of specific skills and knowledge, across a wide range of subjects. Those picked could include close family members, partners and children provided they too were under forty. A few hundreds were selected by a random lottery process. Of course, there were protests and the army had to be mobilised to protect the locations but the problems were relatively minor in my country. That was possibly because none of the political class were deemed to qualify. The government and the Royal family remained in London to oversee the coming storm.

Finally, in 2053, the warrens were populated and sealed from the outside world. That year would see air temperatures rise close to boiling point for the first time. It would not be an instant event but we knew that those still outside would perish from starvation, heat exhaustion and thirst. Best estimates were that few would survive the next two years.

For the warrens there could be no contact with the external world for at least a decade but now after the heartache of the last twelve years we have started small expeditions into the outside world. For we believed we had now found a way to reverse the greenhouse effect.

An hour after leaving the warren we reached a high point in the local landscape. The team began to launch a series of gliders designed to circle the globe using heat to power a simple chemical process. If successful they will “eat” the greenhouse gasses and allow heat to radiate from the planet. A self-sustaining effect which will take many years to work but may finally give us back our planet.

A home we must never abuse again. Happy Birthday me!

June 01, 2020 13:43

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Phil Manders
11:07 Jun 12, 2020

Hi, Scary thought! Nicely done.


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Michał Przywara
21:37 Mar 24, 2022

This is a depressingly possible scenario, but it makes for an interesting read. On the one hand there's a lot of exposition, and I wonder if it might benefit from being broken up a bit with dialogue, or personal reflections. On the other hand, I like the attention to detail and the progressive nature of the catastrophe. Very often apocalyptic stories seem to hinge on a big one-shot event, so it's nice to see this lumbering giant develop. It lends it a lot of weight. The ending is neat too, a hopeful note. But more than that, this story op...


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