Humanity ended with a miserable whimper rather than an atomic bang.
In a 21st century world full of fears of weapons-of-mass-destruction terrorism and the creeping proliferation of nuclear weapon, nobody expected the polar ice caps to melt and the jet streams to shift before Iran or Israel or Pakistan could spark fissile Armageddon.
No, in the end it was a changing climate, a mini ice-age, and mass starvation that got ‘em.
Oh, and the lack of oil. As the climate went to hell, so did most of OPEC, finally engaging Israel in that holy war as blizzards swarming south from Europe blanketed everything from Beirut to Riyadh with unexpected snow. The mullahs called it a sign from Allah, while the Israelis saw it as a chance for a surprise winter offensive. Three-quarters of the world’s oil exports disappeared within a week as the conflict went from limited to no-holds-barred, by which point all oil refineries between Greece and the Horn of Africa were contaminated with radiation.
Months later, in the coldest winter in centuries, much of the remaining oil derricks and platforms and pumpers and pipelines froze solid. In the United States, blizzards froze oil derricks as far south as Midland, Texas. Thousands froze to death that winter, and each of the winters thereafter.
A century later, historians in semi-darkened universities would call it the end of the Petro Era.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They hadn’t been able to rebuild well after the climate shift, but they got enough going. The rich got their oil back and kept their luxuries, protecting them from peasants with armed guards and plentiful stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. The few salvaged oil refineries were kept exclusively for those who could afford to pay exorbitant prices.
The poor, who had struggled through the decades of blizzards and muck and were just now enjoying a bit of warmth as the seasons returned to normal, got to rely on what they could make out of the remnants of the Petro Era.
Scrap metal and the abandoned hulks of factories and refineries and power plants were converted into ingenious machines. Hearkening back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, now that petroleum was rare even for the wealthy, the poor reverted to that mainstay power source of hundreds of years: Steam.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Patrick Layman was the mayor of Pipetropolis, and as such was guaranteed the first newspaper to come off the printing press each dawn. It was laid on his desk by one of his numerous deputies, who fetched the thing from across the street.
Layman arrived at his office and grabbed the paper, dismayed that his clumsy hand had once again smudged the ink all over the place. He recalled that, many years before, back when there was still good ink and real printers, he hadn’t had to worry about smudges. Now that they were using block printing, that relic of the past, the newspaper was a foul, inky thing.
“Fucking hell,” he growled, resisting the urge to throw the paper down. He opened it carefully and checked the oil prices.
Five pieces of gold or column 6 on the Trade Charts. Midland refineries II, IV, and VII were again off-line, driving up the price. A write-up declared that pipes had to be refitted and valves replaced before the three refineries could be operated again. Any entity who could get the pipes and other equipment would get a week’s supply of oil from one of the newly-repaired refineries.
Amarillo would probably land that deal, Layman knew. The city had somehow maintained a huge stockpile of industrial equipment over the centuries, and some of it was still actually useable. The nearest ironworks or steel mill was in the Dallas Ruins, and much haggling would be done before any of the Dallas Ruins companies would trade their metal creations for a 7-day stock of oil. They were simply too far away for it to be a profitable trip, especially if there was no guarantee that the refineries would produce lots of quality fuel.
Layman read a few other news stories, none of them particularly important, and then called for his Updates.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As mayor of Pipetropolis, Patrick Layman was in charge of the Map, which sat in his office and was a perfect scale model of the city. As in perfect perfect: The Map had been built over countless years and was treated almost as a sacred object. Only a man with immense artistic and organizational ability was ever chosen to run the Map.
Every morning the Map had to be updated. The Updates could never be late, or things would back up and that would be catastrophic.
“We’ve lost steam pressure in three sectors. Alpha Four, Beta Four, and Whiskey Two. The rains have been rusting the pipes, and we’ve got two blown,” said an aide, handing Layman a sheet of recycled paper.
Layman walked around and adjusted the Map with his tools and colors. Then he made the adjustments on the white board. And the backup white board. Then he analyzed.
“Remove the couplings in Alpha Three and Five, Beta Five, and Whiskey Seven.” He glanced at a series of charts on the wall. “Have Steamer One run at 40% higher pressure for three hours.”
“Aye!” The aide jotted down the information with a fountain pen and left at a jog.
The town survived on steam, carried through invaluable pipes. Pipetropolis was the first and only city in the region to have power over its entire grid. Life was almost the way it was before the climate change, before the Bad Times.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The elevated rail had been built over seventy years and was magnificent to behold. Its magnificence, however, served an ominous purpose: The train’s steam boilers burst frequently, and only the track’s elevation separated pedestrians walking along from certain scalding death.
Every day it was a miracle the thing didn’t collapse. Among the many secrets Patrick Layman kept, one of the biggest was that Pipetropolis was ready to break apart at the seams.
“Pressurized steam is a corrosive substance,” his college professor had once said, showing him old books and graphs about the nature of water. Local water was especially corrosive with its high mineral content. Hot local water running through pipes on a regular basis could erode them in less than a decade.
Standing by the elevated rail, Layman met with one of his many spies. This man, known to him only as Faucet, was renowned for his uncanny ability to steal pipes and pipe-related equipment like valves and faucets from neighboring towns and cities. A second man joined them and detailed all that was falling apart in the vicinity.
Layman gave Faucet six gold coins to go appropriate the necessary replacement parts from Abilene, which would not notice them gone for a while. Layman kept a chart on which neighboring towns had already been stolen from so that none would grow suspicious.
It was a dirty business, but there was no alternative: No replacement parts existed any longer in Pipetropolis.
The glorious city, with its unrivaled power grid and beautiful elevated rail, could only be kept alive by cannibalizing the less communities on the horizons.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After chatting with several prominent constituents on his walk across downtown, for their were no automobiles, Patrick Layman entered the most popular local restaurant, which was known as a place to see and be seen. Pipetropolis’ most popular citizens dined there frequently, usually several times a week if they could afford it.
As the mayor, Layman’s tab was always on the house.
His luncheon date, the curmudgeonly mayor of Odessa, broke away from his entourage and joined Layman at the small table-for-two near the fireplace. His name was Luis Gonzalez, and Layman hated him with a passion.
“I know you’ve stolen tons of metal from us over the years,” Gonzalez sneered, not bothering with pleasantries. “But I’m willing to forget all that if you’re willing to go in on our little proposal.”
“We’re still pumping water, so we’ve no need for your ridiculous scheme.” Layman knew Gonzalez was right, but wanted to string the man along for a while and see where it led.
“You’re not the only man with spies, Layman. We know about your man Faucet. My men saw him taking two backpacks full of spigots and 3/4″ valves out of our city warehouses four days ago, that poor bastard. Could’ve shot him on the spot, but we like to play nice. My spies say that you’re running out of water to pump, same as us.”
“And this underground pipeline, if we dig it deep enough, can tap into that Texas River to the north without detection? You know the Governor will send his Royal Army out here with fire and brimstone if he finds out. Royal waters and all that. They say he has enough refined gasoline to run tanks, even.”
Gonzalez smiled. “Nah, he’ll just tax the living fuck out of us if he catches us. But I’ve got a group of lads with enough engineering know-how to pull it off. With your help, that is.”
A waiter whisked by and delivered two plates heaped with savory food. Both men stared briefly at the meal, debating whether or not to jump in, and then returned, hesitantly, to their ominous conversation.
“What do you Odessa boys need from me?” Layman asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Some of your engineers, four thousand gallons of gasoline for our borers, and a team of general laborers.”
“You’re out of your mind if you think you’re getting our gas, Gonzalez,” Layman huffed. “That’s an eight-month supply of the stuff!”
“Can’t run these old borers on anything but unleaded,” the Odessa mayor retorted, unfazed. “And we’re splitting the gas bill 50-50. We’ve got four thousand gallons laid out for them already.”
“Fucking hell,” Layman growled as he snatched up his silverware and tore into a steak, his eyes bitter.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The two mayors and small group of engineers met in Layman’s outer offices, staring at the three-dimensional map of the region. The Texas River, a new aquatic feature left over from the climate shift, flowed from north to south almost a hundred miles north of Pipetropolis. Fifteen miles to the west of Pipetropolis lay Odessa, which meant that it would take longer to dig the underground pipeline from there. The stolen water, siphoned surreptitiously from the River, would have to come to Pipetropolis first.
“Time’s running out for us pumping water,” Gonzalez sighed. “Let’s just start digging this goddam thing and figure out water rights later. And don’t think that I know about how much water you need to steam up this whole fancy city you got. You may have a bigger grid than we do, but we’re not dummies when it comes to the math.”
Layman smiled in agreement and held out his calloused palm, which his fellow mayor shook.
“Thick as thieves ’til the end,” Layman said. The engineers laughed. A rare bottle of wine was opened and glasses were passed around. “In a year may we have steam forever more.”