Southbound – read the first two chapters

Prelude

Gothenburg archipelago, western Sweden
Three years before the Loss

When Claes saw his wife run towards their house, he had no idea how scared she was.

He smiled, put his screen down, and watched through the kitchen window as Catherine came closer. Barefoot, with her hair loose and her green dress whipping in her wake, she looked almost translucent, a mirage made visible by the summer twilight.

The backdrop of pine and birch was a wall of grey and green, the path on the hill almost overgrown by grass and weeds. Apart from the crashing of waves breaking against the shore behind the house, all was silent.

He supposed some insight had struck her while she had been walking, perhaps a new angle on her current project, and that she was hurrying back to document her epiphany. It had happened before. This tranquil sliver of countryside was Catherine’s real territory; here she was unbound, and so was her imagination. Joining dots was simpler in this temporary oasis of quiet and caffeine.

He frowned and stood up when Catherine rounded the oak halfway up the hill. She was sprinting with her arms held at the angles of a practised runner, but she was not just running; her dash was reckless, unsafe in the failing light. The plastic box she had brought for picking blueberries was gone.

He had never seen her run like this before, but he could read her movements like an agitated sentence.

He had been wrong. Catherine was not excited.

She was terrified.

He shoved the table out of his way, spilling coffee and sending his screen clattering down on the floor, and reached the door just as Catherine flung it open.

Breathing hard, she held on to the doorframe as if it were about to collapse. Her face was pale and sharp with worry. She leaned in and clutched Claes’s shoulder hard.

“Come,” she said. “You have to see this.”

*

Chapter 1

Gothenburg, Swedish west coast
July 6, 2045
Two years after the Loss
Thursday, 10.30pm

While night fell over Gothenburg and the remaining street lamps blinked to life, Claes sat in his office and chased an idea.

For hours, he had tried to catch an escaped thought, a brief speculation that had shot through his mind with the speed of severe fatigue. The thought had vanished as quickly as it appeared, leaving behind nothing but a sense of promise. He ran his hands through his hair, chewed on a fingernail, then rose and paced the room.

His shift had ended over two hours ago and he needed to rest, only sleep would not come even if he tried. He had been here before. It was a maddening state, curable only by finding the answer or collapsing from exhaustion.

Outside the glass wall to his office, other researchers were walking past on their way to laboratories, private rooms or beds. He was one of over four hundred scientists in the building. Support staff and security added another three hundred. Before the Loss, the office – back then, the warehouse of a software producer – had housed two hundred people. Now Morgondag’s employees filled every quarter. They were a clockwork, ticking ever faster, every cog spinning to ease the suffering.

A light outside the window caught his eye: a searchlight sweeping across the boarded-up facade of a twelve-storey block of flats. The six street lanes below his window were empty. Next to the street were the dead trees and the river, almost invisible in the darkness.

Farther away was the glittering belt of the inner city, thousands of weak lights blurring together like a faint nebula. Most of the lights were oil lamps or candles. Streaks of fluorescent paint marked unlit streets and fences, an old attempt to keep traffic on the road. Not that anyone travelled outside the city centre at night. Those months were long gone.

At times like this, when night hid all the landmarks, his mind often slipped back to the time before the Loss and the things he had taken for granted. Before the open sky had become a threat, he had tried to get outdoors as often as possible. Weeks spent camping in fjords and meadows. Lunches spent reading in parks, people sunbathing around him. Autumn walks with Catherine under clear skies. Facing the sun during the first days of spring, worrying over icicles crashing down from the city’s roofs.

Now he was imprisoned, his liberty snuffed out by an all-seeing jailer millions of kilometres away.

The change had been silent, sudden and invisible, first noticed on a nondescript Tuesday by a student experiment in a corner of an Australian laboratory. A disbelieving professor rang a colleague in another state to verify the readings. They were conclusive. Without warning, ozone levels were plummeting, sinking faster than any prognosis. The decrease escalated into a free-fall drop and hit near-zero in just over an hour. There were traces, worn threads where there had been thick sheets, but only a fraction of a fraction of what had been. The planet was unprotected. Summer was still summer, the weather as mild and erratic as usual, but now the sun speared the cells of every living thing.

The connected world knew a few minutes later, and those who did not immediately understand the consequences quickly learnt. As of that hour, the sun was burning away what it had helped create. Cancer, an almost eradicated plague, stopped being a dated scare and became an omnipresent hand around people’s necks.

The laboratory gauge’s discreet warning beep escalated into a global wail, and chaos rushed in, a violent planet-wide vertigo that swallowed nations like a sea closing around a candle. Theories and debates on what had caused the Ozone to vanish were swiftly crushed by the transition’s brutal momentum. This was not the possible creeping menace of climate change. Changes to policies helped little when social structures withered away by the second.

Later the same day, food hoarding began in earnest. Hundreds of thousands of corner shops, grocery stores and malls were overrun and gutted. There was no restocking. Rioting and violence reached new heights; with most cattle herds and crop fields abandoned to the sun, people knew what waited.

Catherine and he had survived the initial madness, but with time, the sun and the tumult had touched everything. Even them.

Everyone dies, Catherine had said while she and Claes had tried to secure their house; they had lived near to a shopping centre, and trails of looters passed close to their house. That’s not new. Nothing has changed there. All people need to do is think, plan, find new ways. We could survive this. Claes had disagreed in silence. There would be a solution, but people would not stop and think. Not everyone could reason under stress.

At that time, anarchy had ruled supreme. Their house and the city were lost. No one had tried to get in yet, but it was a matter of time. Smoke from burning high-rises hung over the entire town. Those who were forced to run would look for cover. They would try to enter their house because of how it was located close to a mall, and logic be damned. He was proved right less than an hour later.

Claes turned away from the window and touched a piece of paper on his noticeboard. A plain rectangular sheet, with a smaller rectangle cut out inside and calculations scribbled along its top. One note among a mass of sketches and diagrams. Unremarkable and forgettable. Only he would think of it as a frame and imagine Catherine’s face there, glancing at the camera as if expecting it to nip at her. She had never liked being photographed.

The make-believe frame was one of the two relics he kept in memory of his wife. The other keepsake was Catherine’s phone number, eleven digits imprinted on his mind. Two days after her death, it had showed up on his office screen as an incoming call, blinking like a signal from the beyond. Or, he had known instantly, a demon waiting around the corner.

Only Catherine’s murderers would have had access to her phone. They were going through her address book, testing leads, waiting for someone to bite. The urge to take the call had been so strong Claes had run from his room. He could still easily recall it, but he had never tried to call. Even one attempt could get him fired if someone noticed and asked the wrong questions.

In hope of suppressing the desire to try the number, Claes had thrown himself into his work with abandon, drowning the incident with double shifts and complex hypotheses. No one among his colleagues suspected what had happened to Catherine. That was how it had to be. She was dead, that much he had mentioned, but not her name or what she had done after the Loss.

He left the noticeboard and walked up to the window again. North of his office was the cracked dome of a giant arena, blocking out many of the stars. It had been used as a makeshift hospital and military staging area until the riots had poured into its grounds. A few hopeful still ventured there in search of weapons and medical supplies, although the mines kept most away.

Behind the arena were the solar-cell fields, a sea of silver discs covering entire suburbs. Gothenburg’s remaining industry devoured most of its yield; citizens were lucky to get enough to run a flashlight. The blackout had not come straight away: street lights and trains had worked for weeks after the Loss before the power sources started to dwindle away. Consortia of engineers and armed forces were thrown together in hopes of keeping the plants running; then Fessenheim in Germany had blown apart and ended all cooperation. In Sweden, it was solar or nothing. Every panel was vital and irreplaceable. Two weeks earlier, army snipers had used Morgondag’s roof to pick off thieves who tried to steal cells. The shots had shaken Claes’s desk so much they had forced him to leave his room.

Claes turned away from the window and stared at the ceiling. The strip lights were good for staying awake but often gave him headaches. Concrete walls encased him on three sides; the fourth wall, a thick glass pane, opened to the laboratory outside his office. Behind him was his reference literature, a small stash of knowledge untouchable by power failures and viruses. His sunfilm hung over the back of his chair, always within reach in case of a fire. The desk was empty apart from his screens, his old wristwatch, and his caffeine cup. Displayed on the screens were the algorithms that had triggered his idea.

He sat down and swept at the screens, hoping the links in his mind would connect again. This notion had been different from his occasional flashes of inspiration. A large, complete rethink. For a moment, he had seen the outside of his box. His idea had been prompted by a news report on new safe routes in France. That meant more mouths to feed. Morgondag produced an avalanche of food in the shape of synthetic high-nutrition bars, but there was never enough. The company was simply too slow. They could do better. He could do better.

The door to his office opened and a man in a blue shirt leaned in. “Still working on the protein compound?” he asked.

Damn.” Claes leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.

The man in the doorway winced. “Bad timing?” he asked. “I’ll come back later.”

“Sorry, Peter.” Claes winced, rubbed at his eyes and looked up. “I mean it. It’s just – I had an idea, but I can’t piece it together.”

“Weren’t you refining a recipe for next quarter?”

“I was,” Claes answered. “I wrapped that project up this morning. It’s on the server.”

“Then why aren’t you asleep?” Peter asked.

Claes sighed. “Pet project,” he said. Perhaps it was nothing more than a mad thought prompted by lack of sleep, but he would not tell Peter that.

“At this hour?” Peter smiled cautiously. “It’s your time off, for heaven’s sake. Get some downtime.”

Claes recognised Peter’s expression: the universal grimace of cautious sympathy for chronic grievers. Part pity, part encouragement to move on and forget. Best to change the subject.

“Any news on the US connection?” Claes asked. For years, several companies had joined forces in rebuilding links to the surviving North American servers. Surpassed only by Taiwan and South Korea, the US sat on a wealth of computing power. Morgondag and the other European foodcorps dealt with crumbs in comparison. Many other countries had even less.

If a deal could be negotiated between Morgondag and their overseas counterparts, the company would have access to the supercomputers in Los Angeles, array after array of processors that each dwarfed the efforts of nations ten years earlier. Claes would be able to run simulations at a hundred times the current speed.

“I haven’t heard anything recently,” Peter said, “but I keep my hopes high.” He frowned at Claes’s screens. “Are those blending schematics?”

Claes sighed and drummed on his desk with his fingers. “There might be a way to crack up our core recipe’s efficiency,” he said, not mentioning that his elusive thought was much more dramatic. “I had an idea, but I lost it. Is there any more caffeine?”

“Not until next week.” Peter hesitated and gave Claes a sceptical look. “I don’t mean to be negative,” he said, “but it’s been a year since we made any serious improvement to the recipe. And that was a percentage.”

“I know.” Claes bit his lip and brought his two screens closer to each other. He was using the wrong approach. What he had sensed was a bigger picture, a path around the most basic constraints. “I’m working on beating that.”

“We all are,” Peter said. “But we’re wringing every scrap out of what we’ve got, and we’re already on target.”

Claes made a noncommittal sound and continued to watch his screens. Peter was probably right, but that vast, tantalising scope still had its hooks in Claes. He would continue his hunt for a few more minutes. Then he would give up.

When Claes did not reply, Peter shrugged. He lingered in the doorway and watched Claes. “Don’t stretch yourself too thin,” he said. “Please?”

“I won’t.”

“Have you read the feeds today?” Peter asked. “The jobs postings?”

Claes shook his head. Peter was one of his closest friends, but this was a bad time for banter. “Tell me,” he said.

Peter nodded at the window. “There are over three thousand people per job opening now in Gothenburg alone,” he said. “Skilled people. Smart and hungry in every way.”

“I’m not slipping,” Claes assured him. “Or burning myself out. Don’t worry. I’ll close shop in a few minutes and drag myself down to the dorm. Thanks for your concern. I mean it. By the way, your shift ended an hour ago. Don’t you practise what you preach?”

“I’ll sleep tomorrow.” Peter said. “I’ve got the whole day off. It’s too dark to leave now, but I’m off home as soon as I wake up tomorrow morning. I can’t wait. Just me, silence, and a novel I pried off a vendor in Nordstan. It cost me a fortune, but it’ll be worth it.” He paused. “I’ve already told you this, haven’t I?”

“Two days ago.” Claes glanced at his screens. He was getting closer. The problem was the amount of work; too much, far too complicated. That was the key. There was another way. “You mentioned your plan just after dinner,” he said, “in the dorm, while you were washing your hands. It was around ten to seven. You said you paid a month’s salary for that book. I hope it’s worth it.”

“How do you remember these things?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Claes asked. If anything, he wished he could forget more of the mundane details his brain insisted on registering, and instead recall crucial information. Such as the notion he had let slip through his fingers a few hours ago.

Peter looked over his shoulder and back at Claes. “Have I told you you’re crazy?” he whispered, smiling.

“Many, many times.” Claes looked up and returned the smile with an effort. That ever-present hint of sympathy in Peter’s tone always brought a prickling guilt. Technically, Claes had never lied; Catherine was dead, her body washed ashore in the UK and buried by the London government. Only the circumstances that had led to her death were different to what he had told Morgondag. A white lie to get him hired so that he could help others. And still, after two long years, the charade was hard to maintain.

“Go to bed, Claes.” Peter looked at Claes for a moment, as if thinking about saying something else, but then left and closed the door behind him.

Claes returned to his screens. He moved and changed the algorithms, trying to realign them into a pattern that would jog his memory, but he knew he was walking down a dead end. The answer was not hidden among the numbers. Displayed on the screens was the old familiar box, and he was still stuck inside, scratching at its walls. A headache stirred behind his eyes. He was bled dry of inspiration and focus, but he would not give in yet. What he had touched on was too big.

Sometimes, he felt as if he was turning into a replica of the company for which he worked: a quiet, efficient machine, running around the clock. The long shifts were showing; at thirty-six, his skin was coarse and his hair was thinning to a cloud of light brown. But it was worth it. A tiny boost to Morgondag’s production meant a thousand more people fed. That knowledge could drive him through tiredness better than any amount of sleep or coffee.

While he watched his screens, hundreds of people in the factory next door were wrapping foodbars in Morgondag’s trademark green polymer wrappings. Come morning, the armoured trucks would roll out from the compound again. On a good day, without breakdowns or hijacked deliveries, the company shipped sixty thousand foodbars to distribution centres as far away as Lyon.

Morgondag had come far. Their foodbars were expensive but had a near-zero backlash ratio, and the company prospered. Down in the entrance hall, encased in bulletproof glass, was a live palm tree. Part memento, part show-off trophy. And, Claes had thought the first time he saw it, a portent. Cities would come together. There would be stability. All they needed was time.

He yawned, massaged his neck and looked around. Staff in white or yellow coats milled around the laboratory outside his office; all shifts were seamlessly scheduled. Groups of researchers were pointing at screens or squinting into microscopes. The facility would have been ridiculed by any pre-Loss high school, but it did the job. He saw the two security guards who staffed the entrance to the lab and winced when he saw their faces. The guards’ routines were better than any clock, which meant that he was almost three hours into the next shift. Tomorrow, he would be challenged to keep from nodding off.

He sat down and turned to his screens again. One final attempt. He changed a few parameters and fed the task to the processor racks in the bar fridge under his desk. His computer’s original cooling had broken down years ago, and as there were no spare parts, he used whatever was at hand. On the inside of the fridge’s door was an old champagne bottle’s label, meticulously peeled off and transferred to the white plastic. Unlike the palm tree, the label was more a nostalgic reminder than a symbol of hope. Champagne, at least the genuine article, was gone forever.

While his computers wrestled with the calculations, he drank the last of his caffeine, shook his head, and tried to bend his thoughts in the direction they had strayed before. With a soft chime, the data was shunted back to Claes’s screen. Claes looked down, glanced at the algorithms – and without warning, the idea came back to him.

He felt weightless, as if the ground had opened and he was hanging suspended in the air. Slowly, he put his cup down and tried to take a deep breath, but the air in his lungs had turned to concrete.

“It can’t be,” he whispered.

Morgondag’s foodbar recipes were flawed. The nutrient base, carefully developed and fiercely guarded, was not just blemished, it was crippled, built on a presumption so short-sighted he could have laughed. Before him on his screens was a recipe that could ramp up production by orders of a magnitude and still slash costs. Most steps in the current process could be scrapped, too; with a little care, one could mix this base in a regular bathtub. His recipe’s impact unfolded in his imagination while the hum of the office grew distant. Large parts of Morgondag’s facilities were superfluous. The company could save millions, and feed even more.

He braced himself against the dizziness and checked his numbers. All solid and tight. Morgondag’s output would soar off the charts and into the territory of true change. Their bars would flood the markets. He wanted to slam his door open and scream, call for everyone outside to come in and look at his screens, but he could not. The only thing worse than failure was unwarranted certainty. Convinced as he was that his results were accurate, he was at heart a scientist, and knew the cruel tricks exhaustion played with the mind. Nothing was for certain until he had iron-clad confirmation. Until then, he would assume he was wrong.

Frantically, he went over the schematics again, his fingers leaving faint trails of sweat on the displays. Running the final simulation would take an hour. Then he would know for sure if he was right. Once his processor racks had accepted their new task, he sat back in his chair and stared at an empty space on the wall. He wanted to wait for the results, but he was so worn out he struggled to sit upright. A day of hard thought had tired him; this surprise had drained him completely. Unless he slept, he would pass out.

He checked the time. Just past eleven. In seven hours, if his hypothesis held, he would brief his project manager, who in turn would call the board. Two days after that, three at the most, the first improvements could be implemented. He instructed the racks to store a copy of the results on Morgondag’s central server when the simulation was over.

When prompted to give the file a name, he wrote Catherine. She would have loved this wild, out-of-nowhere idea.

Standing up, he looked at his makeshift photo frame and imagined Catherine’s face there. Before torching their old house to erase his and Catherine’s past, he had stared for minutes of an image of Catherine with her dark hair thrown across her freckled face by a cold Norwegian wind. A close-up holiday shot, taken a year into their relationship. She peered at the lens as if the camera was a member of a newly discovered and potentially dangerous species. Her eyes were curious, mischievous, and analytic.

It had been her default mode. The smile was forced; she had hated to be caught in photos, and her aversion shone through her expression like a flame under a paper, but he knew Catherine had been happy while they had camped in the chilly fjord. Adventurous, radiant, more alive than he ever could hope to be. Only he had failed to realise the true extent of her boldness and desire for freedom.

He left his office and squeezed past other researchers in the laboratory to reach the exit. The security staff rose from their chairs and nodded at Claes. A man and a woman, both in their early twenties. Grey army trousers, black hooded jumpers with Morgondag’s logotype on their fronts, sunfilms rolled up tight and secured at their belts.

The woman held out a battered palmscanner and looked at Claes. The procedure was as familiar as the dull black tubes of the guards’ compact automatic rifles. Sights and scenarios that would have been unthinkable two years earlier.

“You look awful,” the woman said. “Any more caffeine and you’d have no room left for blood in your veins. Have you tried sleeping instead?”

“Good night to you too.” Claes placed a hand on the scanner and smiled, genuinely this time. Morgondag instructed their security not to socialise with the general staff, but the confined rooms and long hours stretched the rules. He knew most guards by name. Some had slipped more details, their age or where they came from. Many wanted to exchange news or rumours when cameras or other guards did not see.

These two guards were among those he saw most often. The man’s name was Roger, quiet and awkward, balancing the almost-grown boy with Morgondag’s guidelines and the demands of the new world. The woman who operated the scanner was Lise, as young as her colleague, perhaps not even twenty. Claes knew nothing about her beyond her first name, but he appreciated her cheerful sarcasm and reliable bluntness. Never any gentle or consolidating looks from her. If he was an exhausted mess, she let him know.

Yet underneath her flat comments was a shadow of worry for the worn scientists she was monitoring. This often piqued Claes’s interest; the woman’s concern was at odds with her curt tone and the fact that the security staff’s training was rumoured to be gruelling to the point of sadistic. He suspected that she did not want to see her protégés in bad shape, including suffering from sleep deprivation.

When the scanned cleared Claes, Lise pocketed it and shook her head. “We thought you’d never leave your office,” she said. “Don’t you people rest?”

“As much as I can.” Claes yawned until his jaw hurt. “I had to finish something,” he explained. “It took longer than I expected.”

“We noticed. You’re usually a clockwork. Is everything all right?”

Claes nodded, determined to keep quiet about what he had discovered. He was so winded he did not trust his own judgement; if they got curious, he might break down and tell them about the test he was running. “I’m just tired,” he assured her. “I’ll be asleep in a few minutes.”

“Good idea. You look a little battered. As in run over by a truck.” She nodded at the corridor, suggesting he could move past her. “Sleep well.”

As Claes walked down the corridor that led to his dorm, he thought about his encounter with the guard. A routine check and some quick ribbing. In the light of his new recipe that was being tested as they spoke, the situation took on a different light. Young women with guns. Checkpoints inside an office. In Gothenburg. Anomalies that could, and would, be corrected. He would help do it. Once Morgondag opened the floodgates and food washed onto the streets, life would move faster towards a saner state.

When he reached the dorm, he pressed his thumb to the built-in scanner and pushed the door open to the welcoming gloom. The room held twenty beds but was almost empty; apart from Claes and three other men, its other residents were working the night shift. He knew the schedule by heart. Peter would be here, along with Nina and Jacobsen.

Four hours until Fred and Sanna would enter. Two hundred and forty minutes before he risked being woken up by Sanna’s snoring. Careful not to make any noise, he lay down on his bunk bed and listened to the gentle breathing of his sleeping colleagues. Undressing was too much work. In seconds, he fell asleep with his newfound idea crystalline in his mind.

When the door slid open half an hour later and a shadow slipped inside the room, Claes had already drifted through his dreams and into a deep slumber.

*

Get the full novel here – available as eBook and paperback

Southbound by Erik Boman

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