Time Capsule – when the Earth has had enough

Nine-year-old Lorna watched with fascination as the time capsule was carefully removed from the base of the cliff. The rich brown strata above contained a lot of rusting metal and wire, chunks of burned rubber, and worst of all, plastic – the Devil’s invention according to Old Dove the Seer. Some of the stuff had been excavated and lay in a dirty pile on the grass, but no one ventured near such alien objects. The whole village was present including horses and dogs, but Lorna’s parents were the ones extracting the cylinder because it was their farm and their quarry. Had been for all her mother’s thirty years, and her grandmother before that, all the way back to the Greening, when Mother Earth – Gaia – finally took pity on her wayward children, or so the Sacred Book said.

Her classmate Tommy was jumping up and down, stretching his arm in the air. “Please Mrs Dunn, how old is that thing?”

Lorna’s mother Vera was helping Bill lower the cylinder to the ground, standing it upright on a convenient slab of granite. Being a schoolteacher she had to turn it into a lesson, Lorna thought. One of their horses was inspecting it carefully.

“You see those dark lines that run across the cliff? Those are from volcanic eruptions, and we know there was one every fifty years or so. We can work out the timeline from them, a bit like age-rings on a tree stump. Let’s count down from the top.”

Lorna folded her arms against the chill Cornish wind. She wanted to see what was inside the thing, not do a maths lesson. “It’s been there for seven hundred and fifty years. Can we open it now?”

Tommy’s father was the anxious type. He had been helping Bill cutback the cliff when the found the cylinder. The ash was good fertiliser, something they could barter with other settlements in the valley. “Wait a minute. Suppose it’s a missile or something from the energy war?”

Bill put his hand on Kieran’s shoulder. “They wouldn’t have written ‘time capsule 2023’ on the side. And they didn’t use English neither.”

Lorna tried to register the year. 2023 was a different era; the dark ages, Old Dove called that time of arrogance and plunder and heat. She even had a bible which claimed that the world was God’s gift to people, whereas Old Dove taught them Gaia’s words that people were a gift from the world, and a bad one that gift turned out to be.

The small group crowded round anxiously as Bill Dunn unscrewed the top. Nothing exploded and so he shone a torch inside. “There’s all sorts of things in here.”

He lifted out the contents with great care, handing them round. Several sheets of hand-written paper. A small teddy bear. A small metal lozenge, purpose unknown, and a shiny metal disk with a hole at the centre. Jewellery made from sparkling stones. A handful of photographs of a different group of people in curious clothes, standing in front of what appeared to be homes on wheels with many windows, but there were no horses.

No one said a word, just the chomping and breathing of the peaceful horses and the autumn wind gusting over the towering cliff. A time for storing food for the winter – hay, nuts, roots, oats from the fields, grapes from the vine. Vera took the sheets of paper and began to read.

My name’s Karen Howard, and I was a journalist in London.

“Where’s London?” Tommy cut in.

Vera frowned at him, just a little. “It was a great city once upon a time, Tommy. Let’s hear what Karen has to tell us, shall we?”

I’ve been with the Fleet commune for five years, with my partner John and our daughter Annie. She’s just eight years old now. During the pandemic, we moved out of London to a village in Hampshire called Hartley Wintney, and we thought it would be a dream come true. How wrong we were.

Lorna was trying to follow the strange words. Pandemic. Hampshire. Hartley Wintney – why would anyone call a village that was so hard to pronounce? There again, it was all so long ago, it could all be made up.

Vera interrupted her thoughts as she continued.

John didn’t think too much of it to begin with. I remember digging in the garden at our house in Hartley Wintney. It was a fine spring day; frosty and crisp, but I sensed something was different – the moles had all gone, for one thing – don’t ask me where. And the birds too. I shoved the spade into the ground with my foot and broke the soil, and I noticed the earth was steaming. I pulled off my glove and the ground felt quite warm to the touch. I dug deeper, out of curiosity more than anything else. It wasn’t just steam coming out. It was more like yellow smoke, and it smelt like rotten eggs. It made me feel sick and dizzy. I could see gas coming out of a tiny crack in the earth. John was cursing Hampshire County Council, he was convinced the house had been built on a landfill site. We’d only been in there a few weeks and he’d been looking for something to complain about after he retired. I phoned the council the next day and someone eventually came around. They put a plank over the hole and left. We didn’t hear any more about it for a few weeks until the water company visited. They poked and dug a much bigger hole. The bloke who was digging passed out and we had to call an ambulance. So we were left with this big hole with red tape fencing it off, and yellow smoke was rising high into the air. Then we got an official notice from the Council’s Environment section to keep our windows closed and not to allow anyone in the garden. John had a brainwave and called Southampton University, and finally a geologist called Doctor James appeared. She took soil and gas samples away and when she called us we couldn’t believe it. She said there was a volcano growing in our village. I can’t remember how long it was until the ash started. First, the smoke turned a grey colour and then little flakes of soot started to float away in the wind. I could see them rising up in the smoke and they came down all over the place. After a month, there was a cone of ash about a metre high. There are some photos here for you, whoever you are.

Once the story got on the news, it went global. We were inundated with callers, cranks and geologists from all over the world. As the months passed, the ash-cone grew ever faster until it filled several gardens and it became hotter, too. Not just the ash-cone, but the whole neighbourhood. Even the floor in the house seemed to be warm and the windows were always steaming up. One day, our neighbour’s garden shed caught fire. The entire fence was next, and we reckoned another ash-cone must be starting beneath it, and it was time to go. People for miles around had their houses up for sale but no hope of selling. The whole of Hart district was affected and the ash-cone sat right bang in the middle.

Vera handed round the photos. Lorna studied each one carefully, seeing a monster growing out of the Earth. Some were taken at night, and glowing streams of lava were heading in all directions like a monstrous fungus.

“Gaia must have been very angry,” she said. “We should pray to her before we go to bed. Go on, Mum. Read us some more.”

Dr James was the first to state openly that it was a mega-volcano. It would carry on growing quietly until the magma followed the gases up the crevices to the surface, and it wouldn’t stop. She said it would become thousands of feet high – bigger than the entire county, spilling larva into the Channel. She told us the Earth’s crust is being distorted by the sudden melting of millions of tons of ice at the poles, fracturing the old fault lines, setting off something called a magma plume right under our feet. She said it was a cry of rage from Mother Earth.

We had no choice but to take what we could and leave. We found the campervan and joined a mobile commune from our village, and headed West before the motorways became impassable, because ours wasn’t the only volcano. They were springing up along the Thames valley, spreading out from London. Thousands of refugees streamed out of the South-East looking for work and a place to stay, but many others murdered and looted and the army shot lawbreakers on sight. It wasn’t a Martian invasion as HG Wells had described. It was just our planet.

Tommy was fidgeting. “Who’s HG Wells?”

Vera glanced at his father. “We’ve got some of his books in our village library,” she said. “I’ll show you them if you like, but they’re very, very old.”

“I want to hear the rest of the story,” Lorna said. She was getting cold and it was already growing dark. Her mother gave her a look before she continued.

We just take each day as it comes. We spend a lot of time planning where to find food and fuel. We’ve got guns and ammunition, and we keep away from others – unless they are part of this little community that is. Fifty or so camper vans surround us, and beyond, heavily armed neighbours keep watch.  We didn’t like having to raid the army barracks in Pirbright but when the army pulled out – or gave up, to be more accurate – there was no point in letting equipment fall into the wrong hands. I’m sitting outside our campervan with Annie, wrapped in our blankets as we watch the flickering light from the volcano turn the sky crimson. Occasionally, vivid flares of orange and red reflect off heavy curtains of cloud. We’re waiting for the main event now, and Dr James says it won’t take long, once the Thames pours into the new rift that’s forming. My hands are shaking so much I can hardly write.

It’s happening now! A colossal bang like all the thunder in the heavens has been rolled into one. Annie is squeezing her hands over her ears. I can feel the ground rocking and heaving below my feet, and we’re hundreds of miles away. Everyone’s up now, standing in silence, but the dogs are howling as if the world is ending. Dr James is standing in the centre of our group as calm as ever although there are tears in her eyes. She’s holding up a hand, resting it on the ground. She’s listening to the ground, but she doesn’t need to. When she gets up, her face is very sad. I know she has family in London and like thousands of others, they had refused to leave. I can’t bear to think what they’re going through now, it must be like falling into Hell. She’s speaking to us now and I’m recording a video of all this for you on a memory stick, in the hope that you can read it, but these are her words if you cannot.

‘My people, the rift has opened and London is no more. We must travel further West to high ground before the seas rise up. We’ll go to Cornwall and find a hill farm where we can start a new life together. The Earth has spoken, and this time we must listen and obey.’

We all know what that means. Travel is a slow and painful business because of the roadblocks, but we will go now and we will start again. We will bury our time capsule where we settle, and I pray that whoever finds it will learn from our mistakes. I wish you the very best for the future. Yours, Karen Howard.

Lorna’s mother stopped reading and folded up the sheets of paper, putting them back inside the time capsule, and no one spoke a word, not even Old Dove who stood leaning on her stick. Bill screwed the top back on. The horses continued to graze, and the evenstar was already glittering in the heavens.

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