One day in the climate-changed near-future, the sea turtle came to see the human Chief. The Chief lived in a modest house at the top of a steep hill and the visitor made slow progress to the front gate. The Chief’s intention was to remain flood-proof. The turtle would have preferred to visit the old dwelling of the Chief’s long-lived mother, which had been a palace by the now-risen Great River.
Being Chief really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He had expected to be waited on hand and foot by a coterie of diligent servants. Instead, most of the time he was simply waiting for someone to attend to his needs. The servants spent their time hunched over their individual palm leaves which were linked to the great vine. They seemed to be coaxing some sort of reaction out of the smooth surfaces, their fingers busy and their hands transfixed.
The Chief had passed many years anticipating his opportunity to rule and had thought long and hard about his approach and style. “Guide and listen, shall be my watchwords,” he was recorded as saying. “Listen and guide.”
The turtle was out of breath after the steep climb. The Chief waited patiently—he had developed this quality during his mother’s seemingly endless reign.
“Can I get you anything?” the Chief asked. “Water? Um, shrimps? Crayfish? I don’t believe we have any aquatic weeds.”
“A slice of lettuce would be kind,” said the turtle.
Later, the Chief settled them both on waterproof polystyrene cushions and prompted, “What brings you here?”
“I have some items to return to you. I have left them at the foot of this hill, Apart from these few around my back flipper.”
“Let me see. Oh, these are plastic wrappings and packaging. Part of our world.”
“And so they should stay, sire, your majesty… Despite their lightness, they do not assist with our buoyancy and have been known to constrict our growing youngsters.”
“Yes, I can see how they would function like a corset. Although those were whalebone, of course. Thank you for returning these items to me. I shall initiate some action.”
Later, as the turtle swam back along the swollen river heading for the wide and muddy estuary, the Chief found a space for the gifts in an easily accessible corner near the front of his overflowing warehouse. He decided to sleep on the solution and deal with possible disposal early on the next overheated day.
Which came. And brought a new visitor to court.
This was a female polar bear. The Chief opened his door to its widest extent and the giant creature squeezed rather than sauntered in. The Chief hoped that his face showed no fear. He should be accommodating and gracious towards all his subjects and neighbours. Besides which, he had no guns about the place and suspected also that his breadknife and carving knife would be insufficient in the event of an attack. Just a risk of the job. His mother would have kept a stony face and so should he.
Really his indolent, palm-leaf addicted guards should have stopped the bear’s progress somewhere down the command chain. But it was nice to have a visitor, someone to while away the hot day with. Habitually, the chief rose and dined alone in the cool moments of the morning then usually spent the rest of the overheated day lounging and pondering.
“My one surviving cub is now fully grown,” began the polar bear. “I myself am beyond the fertile seasons so I have travelled further south than previously.”
“Absolutely,” agreed the Chief. “I have only ever seen your kind before in a z– in zoological documentaries. To talk face to face is an honour, ma’am. What brings you here?”
“Outside I have a caravan of flat containers. I am bringing you the last gift from my home. You may find a function for it.”
“That’s very kind, madam. What is it?”
The Chief could certainly put it to good use. He had drunk only warm beer for the past half a decade but he remembered the sharp sweet tang of chilled lager. Food didn’t keep like it used to. So—
“I ask nothing for this gift.”
“That’s very kind.”
“Expedient. You humans have taken the rest of it away whilst you heat up the planet; you might as well have the remainder gratis.”
The Chief followed his ursine visitor down the hill to where several uneven blocks were stacked as a riposte to the sun. He called over to a handful of lounging servants, imploring them to put down their palm leaves and make haste to obtain the maximum benefits from the huge, cool offcuts.
Turning back towards the polar bear, he enquired, “And what will you do now that there are no glaciers or ice floes? Swim?”
“We have chosen to adapt. We will compete with our cousins the brown, the black and the grizzly. Develop a taste for reindeer, salmon, nuts and honey. And whatever garbage we find appetising. Goodbye.”
On the following day the Chief had another new visitor. This time it was a bird about a metre high, grey-brown in plumage, yellow-beaked and with a somewhat chubby and evidently flightless aspect. By now, the Chief was becoming used to both the holes in his personal protection system and the unexpected guests who made their way through.
“I thought you were long gone,” the Chief said.
The dodo managed something of a crooked smile and answered, “I lived on as a simile, a reference point. It is good to talk to an informed human to whom I don’t need to explain myself and my background.”
“If my subjects would look up from the leaves on their laps they would witness a true marvel. So be it. What do you have to teach me?”
“Only the lessons you have already had.”
The Chief remembered his manners and offered the dodo some fruit and some water and a cushion upon which to sit; glad to note that it was one filled with foam rather than down. After a few minutes, the dodo stretched and bade the Chief accompany it to the residence’s store room.
He followed the bird. Its gait was slow and something of a waddle and left no surprise that the explorers in Mauritius had found it so easy to catch. The dodo stopped outside the store house, unguarded despite regulations, and waited for the Chief to open the great doors.
As expected, the front shelves were replete with provisions to comfortably feed the Chief and his court for the rest of the week.
“Dig deeper,” said the dodo. “You will find the shelves empty. Bare and arid like you have left so much of the Earth’s environment.”
The Chief checked the bird’s proposition and saw that the bulk of this large warehouse was as unused and void as the dodo had suggested. But then maybe there would be a delivery tomorrow or the next day bringing fresh produce… from where? From which climate-changed, sand-blasted, infertile farm, ex-woodland or freeholding?
The Chief returned to the entrance. But his visitor had already departed to cultural myth.
The Chief ate frugally that evening and barely slept that night. In the morning, he decided to try to call his subjects to action but they were all too busy on their palm leaves to pay him any due attention.
He gently touched one of the younger ones—Johnno—on the shoulder. “What is the fascination?” the Chief asked when the man’s eyes refocused his way.
“It’s a whole lot of things, Chief. The leaves are all linked via the vines so we are all connected in a way. But the key element is Palmarovia…”
“Is that a game? A function?”
“It’s a place. A secondary world. I suppose you might call it Paradise. It’s somewhere we lost or were kicked out of and the object of the game is to get back there and restore it to its original glory.”
“Like Eden, Atlantis, Camelot, Shangri-La…” the chief mused.
“Yeah, whatever. I might take a break, sir. Look – you run your fingers over the leaf like this.”
The leaf felt too shiny, too solid to be real. The Chief pulled gently at it so that the connecting vine extended and he could find a comfortable spot. Somewhere with a bit of shade. He was feeling peckish and a little thirsty but those needs could wait. It was important to know what so fascinated his subjects. He would let his fingers do the walking, let his eyes wander and marvel.
Of course he would eventually educate them away from this obsession and form work parties to start fixing the damaged climate and the broken world. But for now he had five gold holo-coins and three game wishes to deploy as he saw fit.
He recalled a tale about the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But that was nonsense—the violin hadn’t even been invented then.
He settled into the game and, for several hours at least, didn’t notice the heat, the dryness, the hunger…
© 2020, Allen Ashley
ALLEN ASHLEY (AllenAshley.com) is an award-winning editor, writer and poet who lives in north London UK and works as a critical reader and creative writing tutor. He is the founder of the advanced science fiction writing group Clockhouse London Writers. As an editor, he has published work by authors including Brian W. Aldiss, Storm Constantine, Dennis Etchison, Nina Allan and Adam Roberts. As a writer he has been published in journals and webzines including “Interzone”, “Postscripts”, “The Third Alternative”, “Orbis”, “Words for the Wild”, “Shoreline of Infinity”, “Brittle Star”, “Bonnie’s Crew” and “The Poetry Shed”. For many years he wrote for “Time Out London”. Pre-lockdown, Allen has also been a regular host of and guest reader at spoken word events. From 2013 to 2016, he co-hosted – with Sarah Doyle – Rhyme & Rhythm Jazz Poetry at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield, north London. Allen’s most recent books are: as editor of “The Once and Future Moon” (Eibonvale Press, UK, 2019) – an anthology of Moon-themed science fiction and fantasy stories; and his debut solo poetry collection “Echoes from an Expired Earth” (Demain Publishing, UK, 2020). Allen is President Elect of the British Fantasy Society.