A millennium in the future, Earth is returning from the brink of extinction.  Nineteen-year-old Eliana, along with her friend Jacques, struggles to defeat the remnant survivors of an orbital space station, who seek to use their technology to rule the ailing planet as humanity’s new gods. Eliana finds an unexpected ally in Graham, a newly created artificial intelligence, who believes Eliana holds humanity’s best chance for survival.

INFERNO OF EDEN, currently undergoing its final revision, totals 110,000 words. It uses the framework of an epic yarn about a young woman struggling against the tyranny of the powerful to explore hard science fiction concepts. Specifically, the novel delves into the nature of intelligence as well as our understanding of time.  It also contains an element of the mysterious as humanity’s near extinction has catalyzed the emergence of extraordinary talents in the protagonists.

In 2002 I founded GrubHub.com, which I recently left to pursue a literary career. In my 12 years as leader of the company, I created a brand that has attracted 10 million customers as well as 1.2 million Twitter and Facebook followers. By way of my bona fides for writing a hard science fiction novel, I have a pile of degrees from MIT, where I was often seen hanging around the AI lab.  Which is to say, I’m perfectly aware when I sacrifice solid science in the name of a great story.

Thank you for considering this first installment of INFERNO OF EDEN.

Copyright © 2016 Mike Evans. All rights reserved.


Chapter 1

Like countless youths before him, Jacques had wagered his energy and skill against the caution of his elders.  And lost.  Crouched in the dubious shade of a collapsed building, he cowered from the heat of the pre-noon sun.  He understood that neither youth, nor energy, nor skill would be his salvation.  Luck could not save him.  A miracle would not save him.

The notion was strangely liberating. He’d spent the last week in a frenzy. He’d scrabbled over the detritus of a former civilization, desperately searching for abandoned technology that, against all odds, might have survived a millennium in this hostile environment.  An environment that delicate servos and data stores were not meant to endure.  He had been hoping to find some rare Oldtech, maybe a solid state hard drive, or, if he was really lucky, batteries to be used for the hydroponics back home.

Jacques had travelled further than any other Reclaimer in living memory, even surpassing his uncle’s record.  He’d started seeing the outlying sprawl of the ancient city of Toronto ten days ago and had arrived at a denser suburb after pushing deeper towards the center of the city.

He stood among the ruined foundations of  two and three story buildings.  Their broken heights laid in a straight line, hinting at a city grid. The streets themselves had long since been buried under a thick layer of dirt.  As expected, there were no animals to be seen. There was no vegetation at all.  He was the only living thing for a hundred kilometers in any direction.

Reluctantly Jacques had decided to stop short of the city proper.  He was in a suburb of Toronto called Markham.  The buildings here were low — and brought lower by the depredations of time.  Towards the horizon, several skyscrapers had survived through a combination of the skill of their builders and some twist of fate.   If he squinted, blurring out the details, he could pretend that the city was asleep, rather than dead.

He had wanted to go further, to explore the center of the city.  But that was inherently more dangerous. There would be more dangerously crumbling rubble.  The metal bones of the buildings would cut at his shins as he scrambled.  An injury would just make his remaining time all the more agonizing.

He had moved swiftly on his journey here, hoping to have a spare day to search for Oldtech, and then return.   His return trip would be a race against the heat.  But still, he’d had a chance, and he’d resolutely decided to explore Markham for a single day before returning home.

That first day of frenzied searching had become two days.  There were signs of treasure everywhere in the outskirts of this untouched metropolis.  He’d found the rusted hulk of a computer case.  He’d discovered a cache of supplies.  It had been plundered centuries ago, but where there was one, perhaps there were others.  It all hinted at something more, if he just had the skill to find it.

The excitement of exploration had overcome his better judgement.  Still he might have made it back; he might have outraced the heat of spring.  But he’d been a fool.  Those two days had become a week, and that week was a death sentence.  His search hadn’t been totally fruitless; he’d surveyed and marked several promising caches of technology for future Reclaimers to find.  In years and generations to come, they would build supply stations reaching out toward these treasures.

He’d dreamed of returning with some exotic piece of Oldtech that would improve the clan’s fortunes.  He craved the recognition of his peers and elders both.  He wanted to be a hero.

While returning a hero was now outside his grasp, at least he could be remembered for his final contribution.  Rather than racing the spring’s increasing heat in a doomed attempt to reach the safety of his home far to the north, he’d take several more weeks to survey and map these ruins. Then he’d cut directly across the Ontario wastes to reach the Matagami supply cache.  If he could make it that far, he’d leave his maps and findings for future Reclaimers to find.

They’d also find his mummified body.

Lucky them.

For the first time in months, Jacques let the urgency of his race against the heat fade into the background.  Resting his head on the building behind him, he closed his eyes. He longed, as all sons and daughters of Waskaganish do, of home on a cool winter’s day.

Situated as it was on the southern edge of the James Bay, his home was the southernmost settlement of humanity on the planet, just outside the arctic circle.  In fact, his friends and family were among those few who lived far enough south to witness the sun on the southern horizon during the winter.

For a few weeks, it would be cool enough to enjoy the surface, even at high noon.  There would be celebrations and feasts.  He wondered if there might be music and dancing in the daylight.  Maybe some herbs could be spared from the hydroponics farms to season fresh fish from the bay…

***

Jacques woke with a start. This dreaming was terribly dangerous. He had been thrashing in his sleep, dancing along with the revelers in Waska.   He’d worked himself into a sweaty lather.  But he wasn’t in Waskaganish.  He was far to the south, one of a select few Reclaimers chosen to cross the wasteland of Central Ontario.  The sun was still rising, and he could feel himself sweating profusely, his body temperature climbing despite its best efforts to cast off heat.

In the long tradition of his people, he willed his heart to slow and stayed absolutely still.  Letting his body’s heat dissipate.  The coolness of the shade combined with his immobility slowly brought his temperature down.

After about an hour, as he distanced himself from the dangerous precipice of heat stroke, he allowed his attention to wander once again.  He considered the next week, and how he might make the largest contribution to his people.

The thoughts made him restless. His gut coiled with energy that marked a sharp contrast to the lassitude that had crept over him in the last few days.  Now that he’d faced the truth of his impending demise, his despair had been supplanted by a sense of duty.  He would make his final weeks count for something.

The sun was well past its zenith. While the ambient temperature was still dangerously hot, he’d be able to cool down as the evening progressed.  This was the key: the heat wouldn’t kill him now.  It was much hotter this far south of Waskaganish, but the winter evenings were still mild enough to allow for strenuous activity.  At least for another couple of weeks, anyway.  Summer was coming, and with it, X kind of weather.

Jacques considered where his efforts might yield the beset results.  He reflected on his disastrously unsuccessful prior week here and what he might do differently.  His initial excitement at finding this un-picked-over town had led to frenetic activity. He’d bounded from building to building, each a potential treasure trove.

But those searches had been superficial, and his efforts yielded only disappointment.  He’d changed tactics and created a survey of the roads and major buildings, finally settling on two at the center of the city that looked like the remains of the town’s administration.  Both buildings had offered fairly easy access, but it took some time to explore them thoroughly.   

This quick decision-making in the field was the kind of thing that elder Reclaimers would argue for hours back home, picking over their past adventures until there was no decision left unquestioned.  They’d go on interminably, debating whether residential, commercial, or government buildings yielded the best treasure.  Their arguments were a thin veil over their desire to revisit the days of their youth, risking life and limb for wealth and glory.

With more pragmatic concerns, Jacques had picked his buildings based not on these calculations, but on size and ease of access.   Now, a week later, he reflected that perhaps he’d judge his elders too harshly. None of them had found themselves at the far end of the hostile waste without enough time to get home before the days lengthened into a lethal summer. They’d all survived and returned home in the end.

But he wasn’t going to make it back, so he was no longer in a rush.  Now that he had some time and energy to spare, Jacques switched tactics yet again.  He would try his hand at some of the more challenging excavations he’d initially dismissed as too difficult to undertake.  Ideally, he would find a well protected basement, sheltered from the elements.

Most of the ancient residential buildings were little more than collapsed roofs and walls.   A couple feet of dirt and rubble might hide a surviving partial basement cavity—perhaps a media room or tool shop if he were lucky.

With that thought in mind, Jacques made his way north. His ancient maps referred to this as the suburb of Markham, but the ever-expanding city of Toronto had overtaken the area.  Ruins of large apartment complexes mixed uncomfortably with more modest residential buildings.  The area was completely devoid of life.  Choking dust swirled with even the slightest eddy of wind.  Jacques covered his face with his bandana and squinted in the harsh afternoon sun as he made his way.

Towards the north edge of Markham, he’d seen a building that looked promising. It was one of the first he’d passed as he’d entered the ruins.  A basement access protruded from under a heap of concrete and centuries of accumulated dirt.  He’d dismissed that location because of the difficulty in excavating, but now he returned there determined to make a more thorough effort.

It took several hours to clear the dirt and rubble off the iron cellar doors.  Jacques was surprised to find them in such poor condition.  Most iron held up well over time. The high temperatures usually kept it free from standing moisture.  Uncharacteristically, these doors were thoroughly rusted.  Much of the rubble from the nearby structural wall had fallen through into the stairwell below.

Jacques salvaged a piece of scrap that had faired better than the rest of the door.  He used the long metal strut to lever out the bigger blocks of concrete from the stairwell.  Using this technique, he didn’t need to break up any of the bigger blocks.  Lacking any kind of shovel, he scooped tedious handful after handful of dirt, bloodying his fingernails on the embedded stones and iron scraps.

He set about extracting a particularly large block.  Dragging it away from the stairwell, Jacques was pleased to see an empty space below.  Good.  The floor had at least partially held up to the ceiling’s collapse. The possibility of preserved Oldtech here was as good as any he’d ever seen. In fact, better than any he’d ever heard about.  Ruefully, he realized if he’d been in less of a rush as he’d entered the town, he might have discovered this on his first day here.

Jacques rested.  He scraped the dried salt off his neck, left behind from hours of heavy labor. He reached into his pack to get a small flashlight.  He’d charged the batteries while he’d slept earlier using a small solar device.  Shining the light into the basement, Jacques glimpsed a reflection of shiny metal.  He lay down to get a closer look.  He was shocked to see that it wasn’t metal at all, but standing water.  This realization brought forth something his mind had been ignoring for some time now.  There was significant humidity here in this stairwell.

It was puzzling.  Jacques rarely saw standing water this far from a fresh source like a river or lake.

He lowered himself gingerly into the basement.  His feet groped for purchase. As rested his weight on something solid below, his shoe slipped on the slick surface.  But rather than a crash into a pile of sharp rocks, he splashed into several feet of water.  The concrete was covered with slime. The air was foul with the stink of rotted vegetation.  Sitting uncomfortably in a lukewarm pool with a low and crumbling ceiling did nothing to relieve him increasing sense of claustrophobia.

Rather than focusing on that, Jacques shined his flashlight around the space.  He noticed the remains of collapsed shelving and iron cans, their contents spilled out of their rusted containers some centuries ago.  Among the detritus, he saw a few more durable objects. Plastics and rare earth metals had stood up well against the depredations of time.  He observed several intact batteries.  Probably nonfunctional from their exposure to all this water, but valuable nonetheless.  The materials inside could be scavenged to make new batteries.

As he surveyed the remains of more shelves and equipment, a realization slowly dawned on him.  He was looking at a survival cache.  This was the kind of thing that Reclaimer recruits dreamt of, but no one in half a millennium had found such a thing.  Not a weapons cache—that kind of thing was fairly common—but a survival cache.  Not filled with guns, but stocked instead with food, batteries, equipment…

And water.

A thousand years or more since its construction. Against all odds. Water.  No reservoir could have survived this long.  There must be a reservoir here. Perhaps a deep well pumped water using some ancient power source. If so, this could be used as a long distance outpost for future Reclaimers.

Excitement and curiosity overcame caution.  Jacques splashed forward into the waist-deep pool.

A profusion of mushrooms populated the interior.  A veritable treasure trove of life in this desolate place.  He’d be able to gorge himself on mushrooms before returning north.

His excitement fled with the unwelcome memory that there would be no return. He had no chance of retracing his steps along Lake Erie and then north to the Hudson Bay, following the streams that crisscrossed that land.

The shorter path, across Central Ontario towards the resupply cache at Matagami, was a brutal deathtrap.   No food or supplies could be found en route.  There was no shade to provide relief from the now lengthening days.  He might make it across the wastes… if he was very careful in managing his body temperature.  But that would take time, and he’d arrive at the supply cache as the summer proper began.  He would never survive the journey from that far-flung place to Waskaganish.  He knew he’d make the attempt, but he also knew that the outbound Reclaimers next autumn would find his desiccated corpse several hundred kilometers from home.

But his excitement was too strong to entertain such morbid thoughts. He delved deeper into the basement, marveling at the riches.  Even with the water damage, this was a well-sealed and preserved storehouse.  Oldtech stood up to water much better than wind, sun, or crushing weight.

He saw a small boxy device.  It was making an audible hum.  It measured about ten centimeters on each side.  He picked it up to examine it, surprised that something so ancient would still be functioning.  Its weight was surprising too. It was perhaps two kilograms, heavy for such a small machine.  The exterior was some kind of plastic.  Since it was free of the slime present everywhere else in this basement, it must have been a more exotic material. This was some of most valuable Oldtech, created in the twilight years just before the Burning.

One side was covered with a centimeter of accumulated debris. Jacques brushed it off to see some slatted vents. As he did so, it began humming louder.  Curious.  The other side had an outcropping that appeared to be a small spigot.  Garden hoses hadn’t changed much in the last thousand years, and the threading was instantly recognizable.

As he examined the spigot, a drop of water collected on the underside. It swelled slowly and then plummeted into the standing water below.

A gentle humming came from a pair of vents on the device.  He placed his hand near one vent and felt the gentle breeze of air being pulled in. The other vent was expelling the air.

He covered the intake vent with his hand.  A static charge made the hairs on his arm stand up.  If this thing had been running for hundreds of years, it should be caked in dirt.  Maybe the static was from some kind of self cleaning device.  He took his hand away and the charge dissipated.   Then another drop of water fell from the spigot.

This device was condensing the water out of the ambient humidity.   

It would need to be incredibly efficient to extract water from the air faster than the natural rate of evaporation of this pool. And to function for so long… where did it get the power?

Inspecting closer, Jacques saw that no additional tubing or wires connected to the condenser.  It must run on its own power source, which had functioned for centuries.  Even for his ancestors, who had been masters of technologies that had long since disappeared, their expertise and skill slipping beyond the reach of human memory, this would have been an extremely advanced piece of machinery.  Jacques guessed that it had been made in the last decade before the Burning.

He turned back towards the entrance.  On a shelf nearby he noticed a case made of similar material to the condenser in his hand.  Opening it, he saw it contained a tent and a one liter bottle.  The bottle itself appeared to be made of similar material to the condenser.   The top of the bottle was threaded much like the condenser.

He tried screwing the bottle on to the condenser.  It twisted on easily. As it snapped into place, the quiet hum from the condenser became much louder and heightened in pitch.  The slight drip from the output became a steady stream.

Became life.

A portable source of water.  Enough calories from mushrooms for several weeks of travel.

Would it be enough?  Jacques did the math in his head.  Today was January 18th.  If he returned home as fast as had travelled here, he’d make it back on March 30th.  How many days could he cut off his journey? Five? Six?  No Reclaimer had never returned after March 26th.  But none had ever had a nearly limitless source of water between resupply stations, either.

Jacques wasted no more time on calculations.  Surveying the mushrooms on the walls with a survivalist’s trained eye, he began harvesting edible specimens.  As an afterthought, he grabbed the tent he had found.  He climbed into the open air just after midnight. The dry hot breeze was a shock after the cool humidity of the basement.  Without sparing a thought for his training or the ever-present need to keep cool, Jacques set out north, not at a walk, but at a run.