By Alec Sloman
Edited by Jamie Pflager
By the time Georgia had won her spot at Oakhill, the waiting list had over a thousand people. Despairingly, she imagined them, and thought of how desperately they must have wished for the safety and stability of a Solar Village. The drought was into its fourth year and life was crueler and more precarious than at any time in living memory. People were rationing everything - water, fuel, and now: even food. And as the effects of a warming planet piled up, Parliament was powerless to respond, instead gripped by one stupid, petty scandal after another. Normal folk spoke mockingly of their antics, as if to reassure themselves that despite the dysfunction life would carry on. But that cynical humour, long a feature of the Australian psyche, had never faced something quite like this, and it now served only the coldest of comforts - for the ominous, threatening reality of climate change was finally coming home to roost. And everyone, in their heart of hearts, knew it.
Protruding from the ground and encircled by a scattering of dried eucalyptus leaves was the connection terminal for her plot. It was a squat, concrete box, about the size of a conventional oven, which in the very middle had three plugs: a 12-pin cannon connector for power, and two copper couplings, one for water-in and one for water-out. Above them was a small e-ink display showing:
Georgia crouched down and, pulling the ends of the hoses to the couplings, tightened the threaded fasteners with her wrench. She then reached for her crimping pliers and set the cannon connector in place. Squeezing down hard, a rubber snake carrying 250 volts and a host of digital links now connected the access point at her feet to the micro-home standing behind her. The display redrew, and now read:
“It’s good to go, Jack!”, she called out.
Georgia stood and turned to where, across the glade, was her new home. At 4 meters high and 7 meters long it cut a fine, if humble, figure, and though it was an undeniably modest abode, its setting was grand, resplendent, but above all natural. Nestled in the shady clearing beneath a Supertree, it was enveloped by a bucolic splendour that surpassed anything one could find amongst the unsightly, tightly-packed constructions of the city.
Behind it, the setting sun cast a golden hue through the clearing, illuminating small clouds of insects buzzing above the gently waving grass.
It’s perfect, she thought.
All her life, Georgia had been a renter, moving house every year or two. But no longer. This was the first, and hopefully the last home, she’d ever own, and it cost her a mere eighty-thousand dollars. The Supertree integration package had cost another thirty, but it was still the most affordable option by a long-shot, and getting a spot under a Supertree in Oakhill was a stroke of unbelievably good luck.
She walked back through the mostly bare and recently vacated plot to the steps of the — her — new home, where Jack, her new neighbour, was admiring the exterior. “I love this model,” he said, running his hand across the wooden slats. Inside, Georgia saw the appliances had sprung to life, animated by a stream of electrons flowing from the Supertree. The LEDs shined with a cool, white light and the ceiling fans spun gently.
“Shall we run the setup?”, Jack asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “I might have some questions, so please come inside.”
He smiled and nodded. The two walked inside and sat down at the dining table. Georgia unslung the well-worn and oil-blotted tote from her shoulder and placed it in her lap, producing from within it a sturdy, rubberised laptop computer.
“Have you used the setup utility before?”, Jack asked.
She had. Her friend Jessie, who'd set up at the nearby Melbourne Water Reservoirs, had asked for her help: she'd completed an entire setup of precisely the same model, not so long ago.
“Yes, actually. Also, I’ve run the test suite on this particular unit, and have written some custom reports just for my own entertainment, but I still have a lot to learn. Before I came here, I did commercial-scale SCADA but that was highly specialised. This kind of automation is much broader. And it’s my home!”
A wistful smile crinkled the corner of Jack’s eyes, and he recalled setting up his own home at Oakhill. He remembered on his first day Michelle scolding him, saying: You’re not just an automation engineer anymore. You have to do the plumbing, too! “Yes,” he replied with a smile, “I know what you mean.”
Planting his hands on the table and pushing himself upwards, he stood as if uprooting an old tree, his languor reflecting a hard day’s work. “What do you think you’ll do with your plot?”, he asked.
“Well, I should start by generating keys…”, replied Georgia, her fingers dancing across the keyboard:
“Helga! I love it…”, she mused, chuckling.
Georgia performed the keygen and configured her home’s controller to interface with Supertree Helga. After the interface was established, she executed the setup utility:
It would take about 30 minutes for her home’s solar, battery, water and wastewater systems to synchronise with the Oakhill Dome. Helga was one of twelve trees that in total provided forty-eight connection points, supporting just over one hundred full-time residents. Altogether, the system had generated a surplus of electricity which the community had sold back to the grid for 5 years running.
While the utility completed, Georgia and Jack went to sit in the garden beneath the Supertree.
“When we first set up there was no perimeter wall. No walls, you know? But it left us vulnerable. Outsiders were loitering and then stealing from us. Harassing our people.”
“I heard about it,” Georgia said.
Jack was a veteran of Oakhill, part of the first intake after the founders had set up in 2019. Like Georgia, he’d been an automation engineer, which had set him up to be a valuable member of the community. He’d been there practically from the start, through the good times and the bad.
“That’s right,” replied Jack. “It made the news,” he said, sombrely.
Georgia recalled the newscast, Chaotic Brawl Rocks Oakhill, and though she knew it was a sensitive topic, curiosity got the better of her. “What actually happened that night?”, she asked.
“Well, basically, it was like… 3 am? And group of men tried to rob the village. I guess they thought we were an easy target. Or that we didn’t have surveillance equipment. Anyways, I really, really didn’t like that, so Matthew and I went and confronted them. Michelle, who’s far more compassionate than I, said that these were ‘desperate people’, the government had failed them, and that the police would take care of it. But I was angry at them just for showing up! I don’t like to admit it, but I’m an angry person, and I hate what the outside world has become. When it turned up on my lawn, I just… it was a brawl, and though most of the guys ran off one of them stayed and fought, and pretty much, we beat the shit out of him. He’s OK now, but we put him in hospital and I did some time for the assault. My sentence was reduced because the lawyer successfully argued that my ‘blameless desire to protect my community’ reduced my moral culpability for the offence. But honestly, I don’t regret it. And I’d do it again.”
His story was a lot to take in. Georgia paused a moment and said, “That’s why you built the wall…”
“Yep,” he concurred. “Most people in the community were dead against it. I mean, it’s a 3 meter concrete wall with razor wire. It’s an eyesore, and it goes against one of our most important founding principles - no walls - but I felt that the alternative was more invasions and robberies. And eventually,” he shrugged, “Michelle agreed.”
Georgia knew how dangerous the city had become. His story was all-too familiar, and she felt a painful lump in her throat.
“I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I was robbed, too,” she said. “It was a similar thing. A couple of guys just kicked my door in. My dog attacked them, so they killed her. They took a bunch of my stuff, and the police never found them. It was the most terrifying night of my life.”
Jack looked away, and then down at his feet. He shook his head, “I’m so sorry, Georgia. When did this happen?”
“A few days before I applied for Oakhill.”
“Well shit,” he said with a deep sigh.
“So you’ve been under this Supertree for... five years now?”, replied Georgia, changing the subject.
“Yep, five years,” he replied.
“And you really never paid an electricity or water bill?”
“That is correct. I just do my part to keep this place running.”
Georgia looked over her shoulder and up at the Supertree behind her. It stood tall and strong, imposing and beautiful. Its trunk was shrouded with ferns, vines, and orchids and its intricate pattern of steel branches fanned out into a wide canopy, gorgeous and dotted with twinkling fairy lights.
“It’s beautiful. Did you design her?”
Jack shifted in his chair so that he now faced Helga. “I did!”, he exclaimed. “The steelwork is standard, but I did a fair bit of work on the batteries which you can’t see because they’re housed inside about halfway up the trunk. Those plans are now used throughout the village, by the way.”
“Yes, I reviewed them,” replied Georgia, “first when I was reading about Oakhill, and then in preparation for the entrance exam. I saw on VillageHub that your Segment is used in a few villages.”
“Yep, that’s right. Jenny maintains a fork up in Mill Park and we exchange pull requests from time to tie. She did some excellent work on the load balancer, and also the access point, but she’s most famous for her wastewater Segment. That repo has something like five thousand favourites on VillageHub.”
“Wow,” said Georgia. “She sounds like a capable engineer.”
“She is! We run a lot of her Segment because it just works. As the maintainer of Helga, I get to choose the software it runs, and I opt for Jenny’s development branch. I even share our diagnostic logs with her. Whenever she pushes new Segment, I get a notification, print the parts, install them, and reboot the tree. And so far I haven’t had a single problem.”
“Hmm. So I guess I could make some upstream contributions?” Georgia asked, smiling.
“You bet,” Jack replied. “I also did the panel control assembly, and the actual controller for the panels. On this hill we get a lot of sun, so our refresh rate is pretty damn high. We are exceedingly lucky to be where we are.”
Georgia felt lucky, which was unusual for her.
“It’s a really nice spot. And does Helga have a voice interface, too?”
Jack chuckled, and said, “Helga, status report.”
In the twilight of the clearing, the Supertree lit up in a fantastic display of multicoloured light. Travelling from the tips of each branch down to the trunk, the light gathered, swirled, and faded to a dim blue glow, which then pulsated with the amplitude of a computer voice:
“Energy at 85%, water at 65%. Replenish rates OK. All systems nominal.”
Breaking into a smile, Georgia was overcome with a playful, childlike joy. Another unusual sensation.
“Helga! I love her!”, she said, beaming.
“Yeah… Actually, installing those lights was easier than you’d think. They’re just really long, flexible LED strips, and it’s a standard animation that I downloaded from VillageHub. The only aesthetic touch I added was the plasma ball.”
“There’s a plasma ball?”
“Yeah! It’s inside. If you touch it, the tree lights up.”
They laughed together.
“But in all seriousness, you can see why people want to live here. While our batteries never dip below 50%, most people out there are still burning gas, which is expensive, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Yep. Last quarter my gas bill was over a thousand dollars.”
“Ooph”, Jack scoffed. “Lucky for you, that’ll be the last bill you ever pay.”
“Yeah, well, not having to pay for utilities is definitely a top feature, but to be honest, the main reason I came is this”, Georgia said, gesturing to the gardens around them.
“To live in a garden, under Supertrees, working together for a common purpose. With no fences! I feel like life was always meant to be like this.”
Jack agreed, nodding silently.
“That’s why I came, too. Life outside was ridiculous... everyone wondering why they’re so miserable, but to me it was obvious! Of course back when we started, we weren’t sure it would work. Oakhill was just a crazy idea! But dreams can come true. You know we’ve run an energy surplus every year? Even through this drought, we’ve got enough energy and water to cultivate most of our own food, and we easily make up the rest with our trade surplus. Our workshop prints a lot of stuff for the other villages, and we’ve contributed more to VillageHub than any other single community.”
A cool breeze blew through the grove, and Jack and Georgia sat in silence, smiling and ponderous. After a short time, Jack said, “Well, I’m always happy to meet newcomers who can configure an access point, Georgia.”
He stood, and before taking his leave said, “You’ve got a beautiful home there, and the systems seem to be working fine. I’m sure you’ll love it, and if you’re keen to get your hands dirty, I’m headed to the dome tomorrow morning for a planning meeting. If you’re ready, you should come along. We’ve got a full schedule of works on the aquaponics, which is both interesting and important.”
“That sounds great,” she replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Jack smiled and turned to his plot, where a simple micro-home was surrounded by rows of robotically tended crops.
“See you tomorrow.”
As he left, the base of the Supertree became ringed with dim, yellow light. The branches lit up, dotted with gently pulsing pointilles of white light, like stars twinkling in the night sky.
Georgia sat there for a long while, gazing at the sublime display.
It’s too good to be true, she thought. And with that, she went inside her new home to sleep.
Georgia woke early, before dawn. Her first sleep at Oakhill had been an uncomfortable one. The temperature had only dipped below 30 at midnight, and so already the morning felt oppressively thick and hot. She stood in the loft of her new home, staring silently at a mirror, pondering her reflection.
“There are no passengers on spaceship earth,” she whispered to herself. “We are all crew.”
These were the words that she had repeated to herself every morning for as long as she could remember. But now, instead of hope and purpose, the words made her afraid. Action is the antidote to despair, she reassured herself, but there had been no action, and now, all that was left were words.
Just try not to think about it, she thought.
Her mind raced and her heart followed, and though she tried to quell the disquiet it was unyielding and vicious. Tears came. Jack would be headed to the dome soon, so she dried her face and thought, It’s your first day. Get a hold of yourself!
She walked to the foot of her bed where her bags were sitting, open but still packed, and from them pulled out a blue work-suit.
“Focus, Georgia!”, she said aloud.
Just then, she heard Jack’s voice from outside. “Georgia! Good morning.”
Pulling on her worksuit and zipping up the front, she stopped short of the ladder. Gathering herself with a deep breath, she climbed down and went outside. There was Jack, and she greeted him, “Good morning!”
“Did you sleep well?”, he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied.
Jack looked at her with a slight frown. “Huh. It was pretty miserable last night. If you slept well, you’re luckier than I was.”
“Well, I feel lucky!”, she lied.
“It’s a lucky day. You’re going to enjoy meeting the bench. They’re excited to meet you.” Jack said.
Jack was sinewy and tanned with a tall, narrow face that was unshaven and dark. His striking visage was capped in a shiny, balding dome, and great beads of sweat gathered upon his brow. He wore a dark blue work-suit, much like Georgia’s, though his was stained with years of daily use. Standing at ease, he’d left the front zipper of his suit half-way undone, exposing a tangle of greying chest hair.
They strode down a gravel pathway toward the centre of the village, where dozens of micro-homes clustered under Supertrees all about them. They walked through luscious gardens full of greenhouses, fountains, panels, sheds, tables, seats, sculptures and lights. Even the sound of a piano lingered sweetly in the air.
“This is what heaven must be like,” said Georgia.
“I’ve got to admit, it completely surpassed my expectations,” replied Jack.
“I still can’t believe that I was selected. After the initial interview, I was sure I’d bombed it.”
“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but we really liked that interview,” Jack laughed. “I mean, you were clearly nervous as hell, but most people are. So we just try and listen to what we hear, and with you, everything you said was perfect. And it was passionate.”
“Well, obviously I’m glad,” Georgia blushed, “But, I was a total wreck after that. I didn’t think I’d get a callback, and I’d been preparing for the practical examination for months! I thought all that work had been for nothing.”
“We were all pretty excited to see how you’d do on the practical,” replied Jack. “Your references were quite complimentary. I’m also not supposed to tell you this, but your boss flat-out said he didn’t want to let you go.”
“Are you serious?”, asked Georgia. “Oh my god…”
“And on the practical you ranked second out of fifty. And the person who came first was a totally miserable bastard. His entrance essay was bad, horrible, even. It might be hard for you to believe, but, with regards to your candidacy, the vote was unanimous. Pretty much from the beginning, you were tipped to win.”
“I’m happy to hear it”, she replied. But in truth, all she felt was the weight of great expectations.
The Oakhill dome was visible from every corner of the village. It stood three stories tall was completed with a shining glass rotunda. It reminded Georgia of her trip to Tokyo, where Mt. Fuji hung gently in the distance, ever-present and smiling.
“Jack… I’m astounded that this place works so well,” she said.
“Hmm.” He stopped for a moment, and, nodding, replied, “They said Utopia wasn’t possible, but here we are. And it turns out the secret was basically plumbing. And fish.”
Oakhill’s aquaponics infrastructure produced tonnes of fish every month. Oakhill Tilapia was a beloved local brand, and since global fish stocks had begun to crash, it was the most dependable supply of affordable, high-quality protein in the region.
The founders’ vision was of a collectively owned and managed community, where everyone partook of the shared abundance and scarcity, together as one. And on paper it looked promising. The theory went that by maximising the automation of water, energy and food production, the residents’ time would be freed to cultivate their land, and themselves, however they wished.
And Oakhill Tilapia proved it, in a big way. After it was established that solar villages could be profitable, they started to gain attention in the media, and the rest, as they say, was history.
They approached the ground floor entrance where three revolving glass doors sat nestled underneath hanging gardens. Up close the Dome seemed somehow more compact. Perhaps it was that, with such a pleasing design and attention to detail, it sat so comfortably in its surroundings, in a way that you might not otherwise expect from such a large, artificial structure.
“Welcome to the dome,” said Jack. “My guess is that you’re already familiar, but the abbreviated tour goes like this.”
He went to speak, but then paused unexpectedly.
“By the way, we stopped doing dome tours last year. Did you hear about that?”
Of course she’d heard. Everyone had heard about that. She remembered at the time thinking of how perhaps it was a sign of things to come. She nodded, and Jack continued, “Ok, so starting with basement two, you’ve got personal storage lockers, and cryogenics. Fun fact! The main batteries are actually buried underneath the storage lockers. Basement one has the print shop, the agro-labs and robotics. Ground has the kitchen, laundry and dining. Floor one has a co-working space with 12 offices, a boardroom, and an amphitheatre. There are six, I think, multipurpose rooms, on the south side. You’ll have to check me on that. So, that’s the tour. Let’s grab a coffee and then head up to Engineering.”
They walked through the revolving doors.
Georgia had been looking forward to this moment for a long time. Winning a spot on the Oakhill Engineering Bench was a fortunate turn of events, but walking through the front doors of the building where the Solar Village Manifesto was actually written was the honour of her lifetime.
“Coffee, this way,” said Jack.
They walked through a corridor to the kitchen, where a group of blue-suited engineers had gathered around a large metal espresso machine, discussing and laughing amongst themselves.
Jack and Georgia approached the bench and stood patiently to one side while the barista finished a conversation. She then reached out for Jack’s re-useable cup, and said, “Jack! Good morning.”
“Good morning,” he replied. “Just the usual, please,”
Georgia listened as Jack and the barista bantered about wastewater systems until one particular phrase caught her attention: "to manage every last drop."
Though genuinely curious - and keen to appear interested - her thoughts drifted away, to another time, to long showers, the most luxurious relic of her childhood. She remembered a time when people weren’t so vigilant. When they didn’t file for bankruptcy because of their utility bills. How has it come to this? How could we have been so foolish, she thought.
Then, she felt a soft touch on her arm. “And what can I get for you?” She looked up to see the smiling face of the barista.
Georgia was speechless. She wanted a flat white, but her mouth was full of rocks.
“A, uh, white… uh, a flat white please,” she stammered.
She was taken by complete surprise - she knew they’d meet eventually, but never imagined it would be so informally, or so soon. Her mind raced desperately for words, but her composure was lost, and her gut collapsed into a heap of knots. Great first impression, she thought.
Fortunately for her, Jack intervened.
“Michelle, this is Georgia. She’s the new junior on the bench.”
When Michelle Morley smiled, she did it with a certain magic, her eyes and mouth shining like rays of sunlight. “Welcome to Oakhill,” she said. “We’re glad you’ve joined us.”
“Thank you. It’s an absolute honour to meet you,” Georgia replied.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Michelle laughed, “but it’s nice to meet you, too. Jack tells me you’re into agro-tech?”
“Uh, yes… that’s right.”
“Well, without getting into detail right now, you’ve come at interesting time,” said Michelle, passing Georgia her coffee. “We’ll go over the briefing upstairs, but I wanted to let you know that if you need anything at all, just find me.”
With folded hands Georgia bowed, “Absolutely. Thank you, Michelle.” Michelle smiled and nodded earnestly in reply, and Georgia became flushed as she felt - or maybe imagined - smirks from a couple of the gathered engineers: no one bowed in Australia, and certainly no-one bowed here in the village. How embarrassing, she thought as she followed Jack, taking the bench seat next to his.
“So that’s her. I have to admit, I was not expecting her to be the barista.”
“Yep. She’s not just a singer,” Jack laughed.
In fact, Michelle was a singer, a barista, and the author of the Solar Village Manifesto. She had founded Oakhill.
Georgia looked at down her coffee and smiled, the shape of a leaf poured into the foam.
The Engineering Hall looked just as she had imagined: full of electronics, workbenches and whiteboards, all crowded with drawings and diagrams and charts of every description. And from her endless late-night perusals of VillageHub, she was deeply familiar with the quality and scope of the work it produced. Aside from being VillageHub’s most prolific team of contributors, Oakhill’s Engineering Bench had incubated dozens of enterprises right here in this space, including, rather notably, Oakhill Home, which began as 3d-printed desk lamp that quickly racked up 45,000 favourites and topped the printables category.
There was something infectious about the way enterprise worked inside a Solar Village. Once the necessities of life were no longer an all-encompassing concern, the imagination was free to run wild, and there was plenty of time and tools to match.
Today they were discussing aquaponics, with Michelle convening.
“I’d like everyone to welcome Georgia,” said Michelle, “the new junior on our bench.” The assembly applauded politely, claps mixed with a chorus of spoken welcomes. Now, with a stern, reassuring authority, Michelle continued, “We have some important things to discuss so let’s get started.”
“Today we’ll a hear a full report from Emma and Matthew. But just before we do, you might have heard that there were some concerns with the latest release of PONIX, which I believe have now been resolved. Is that right? Yes. At the same time we submitted that patch, Matthew also submitted his new sensor to track fish stocks with only a third of the power draw. It’s pretty clever. Ok, so Emma, take us through your findings.”
Emma stood, and walking to the front of the room, took the podium. Georgia was surprised by her youth: with her freckled face and curly hair she appeared no more than 20 years old.
“Thank you, Michelle. Lights.”
The lights dimmed and the projector behind Emma now showed a map of Oakhill, with its multifarious water and waste systems highlighted in blue and yellow.
“Good morning. We have three points to discuss. The first, as Michelle mentioned, is the latest release of PONIX, which Matthew had to patch.” She gestured to a strikingly handsome man in the front row, older, with black, thickly-rimmed glasses and a low, swooping haircut.
Matthew stood, and with deference replied, “I think it’d be fairer to say that I reviewed your patch, so why don’t you do the brief?”
“Thanks Matthew,” Emma said with a smile. “In that case, let me first thank Susan and Mike for the new system health checks, which caught the problem early. It was a simple bug and though we managed to write a test and fix the issue, it could have been worse. The PONIX Working Group is reviewing our pull request today, which includes some of our sanitised logs that illustrate how our patch works.”
The projection now showed a diagram of a long, skinny electrode, similar in appearance to that of a flashlight, with one end capped by a sensor and the other ending in a short cable.
“The PONIX controller superclass contained a change that broke the ion-selective electrode, or ISE, controller which subclassed it, and the test suite didn’t cover that properly. Luckily, our new smoke test caught the problem within a few minutes of booting the new release.”
The projection now showed that changeset, a large block of Segment with additions in green and subtractions in red.
“When the controller is initialised, its superclass starts by reading a config file containing a whitelist of sockets. The idea is that the sockets should be immutable at run-time, and you can only change them if you’re sufficiently in-control to reboot the process. It’s meant as a security feature, so you can’t tamper with where the sensors send their data. Well, the label for the default channel was modified in error, so the ammonia sensors were shouting into a void. Of course, they ran into this issue in their integration tests - but 'fixed' the tests, rather than reverting the config reader. Luckily for them, less so for us, we're the only suckers running their development controllers in production, so we caught this before their other consumers hit it.”
Some of the engineers chuckled. It was a minor bug with a simple fix, and there was very little danger of an actual ammonia spike occurring as a result because, as Georgia knew from her reading, PONIX protocol ensured that if even one fish showed signs of distress the water would be manually tested.
“That’s the patch,” Emma continued, “and if it’s merged a notification will go out and we’ll update the controllers later today. Now, I appreciate the glory, Matthew, but the next topic is definitely yours… since you invented it.”
“Thanks Emma, but I won’t bore everyone with the details...again”, Matthew said, smiling wryly.
The assembly of engineers laughed, while others responded with mocking groans.
“Seriously though, I appreciate everyone’s feedback on the pull request. It’s been a long time coming. I know you’re all sick of hearing about hydro-acoustics so, if you’re a glutton for deployment notes you know where to find them. That’s all I’ll say for now.”
The bench erupted into sustained and thunderous applause, and rightly so - Jack’s work on hydro-acoustic sensors was well-known, and of great importance to the aquaponics community.
Georgia had already reviewed his designs on VillageHub and knew that Matthew’s work was both painstaking and meticulous, but in person he was refreshingly humble, and even-more impressive for it. It left Georgia feeling rather like a fraud, and while everyone around her laughed and smiled, her armpits grew damp with anxiety. She felt her breath becoming short and fast.
“Thank you, Matthew.”
Emma now returned to the stage, and the projector showed a table of climatological data.
“Point three, and this is the big one. We’re almost definitely going to hit 50C this summer,” she began, “and the question is will aquaponics start losing water? How do we keep our systems cool enough to prevent spoilage in such extreme conditions? Power draw at those temperatures isn’t known, and our basic assumption was that electrical refrigeration was our least attractive option.”
That’s because it draws so much power, Georgia thought. If in high temperatures the whole village is generally under a heavier load, the batteries could face significant depletion in the course of a single, very hot day.
“We did simulations using a number of approaches, and no surprises, the most sustainable way was to bury new water storage and pump it through a series of coils at these eight locations.”
Emma turned to face the projection behind her, which now showed an updated map of Oakhill with additions in green, including four new water tanks and eight pumps.
“You can read our findings in full on VillageHub, but the essence is that our thermal-mass cooling design works, we just didn’t build enough of it to cover the 50C possibility.”
“And what happens if it gets to 51?”, asked Michelle, pointedly.
Tense silence. It lingered, but for just long enough.
“We also did those projections,” Emma replied hesitantly. “Even in the 50C scenario, with the new tanks and pumps, we’re working within a thin margin of our emergency levels during a handful of intervals. We don’t really like doing this, ever, so it’s only right that you should know, in a 51C scenario it would be necessary to implement partial refrigeration, because there just isn’t good space to bury any more tanks. Which means new panels and more batteries… or an energy purchase.”
“Up to what temperature did you run your simulations?”, asked Michelle.
“And 50C was the only scenario where we didn’t require refrigeration?”
The room was again silent, and then Michelle spoke, “We have to prepare for at least 52C, wouldn’t you say? Long-term, we’ll need to partially refrigerate aquaponics during hot spikes. It’s going to be expensive, but I’ll be damned if we do an energy purchase from Jemena. We didn’t come this far just to refrigerate water by burning gas. If we need panels, we build the panels. If we need batteries, we buy the batteries. To me it’s that simple, but if you disagree, I'd like to hear your thoughts.”
Emma scanned the bench for a contribution. “Georgia, what do you think?”
Oh shit, Georgia thought. I have to say say something!?
"Um, well, I don't have a lot of background in climatology, but even just extrapolating from your chart, if you imagine there’s an exponential curve instead of a linear one, 51C could happen this year."
Emma nodded. “Well then, Georgia, it sounds like you’re volunteering to help me do the plumbing on this one.”
The bench erupted into playful laughter, giving way to loud applause.
Jack, who was sitting next to her, put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Welcome to your first project. Like I said, plumbing isn’t my thing, but I can help with everything else.”
Georgia smiled at him, but was secretly terrified. Perhaps we can succeed making Oakhill work in 52C, she thought, but what about the rest of Melbourne?
The elevator doors opened, and Emma led them through the glassy foyer out the north-side door and into the shadow of the dome.
“The site is just over there,” she said, pointing south.
From their current vantage, the gardens of Oakhill were a splendour, sensuous hills of green and gold, plants and sunlight mingling in the gentle breeze. And though it was a breathtaking sight, Georgia was unable to behold it - her mind’s eye had escaped, and now hung high above the city, troubled by thoughts of what might befall it.
“Have you ever buried a tank before?” Emma asked.
“Yes, a few. But none of this size. And I’ve never done coils or pumps like that either.”
“Well, this project is perfect for cutting your teeth. I know Jack says he isn’t much of a plumber, but actually he is. And it won’t be long before you are, too.”
After a short walk they approached the work-site where 20-foot shipping containers were stacked two high. They had been heavily modified to serve as the quadrants’ aquaponics control centre.
“For the dig,” said Emma, “We’ll have to crane those to the adjoining plot, so at some point soon we’ll need to reserve the LifeTrac.”
Modular construction was a hallmark of village life. The only permanent structure was the dome. Everything else could be anchored to the ground but easily moved, and when you needed to bury something under a building, you just moved it to the side and dug a hole.
“Moving the control centre isn’t the simplest thing,” Emma laughed, “but we’ve done it before, and the procedure is now completely documented. Plus we have plenty of hands so we should be able to get that part done in a day.”
Packing down an entire control centre in a day? Georgia was impressed, but skeptical.
Emma led her inside the container, which was cramped by a tangle of cables, computers and plumbing. It was cool and dark, save for the dimly glowing orb suspended from the ceiling near the centre of the room. It cast a dark reddish hue over the computer terminals, which blinked with green text.
“You hear that?”, asked Emma.
Georgia did not. She shook her head.
“Hmm, that’s the sound of a pump failing to start. It’s that clicking noise, every six seconds.”
Click. Click. Click. Georgia heard it.
“One of the impellers must have seized. Could you find the pump? I have to check something.”
Emma sat down at a terminal, and whispering quietly to herself began typing, her head dancing and bobbing as she skilfully navigated the menus. Meanwhile, Georgia looked about, searching for the broken impeller. But her mind lingered elsewhere, still perched distantly above the city. She imagined the streets of Melbourne: crowded, desperate, and hot, and she felt an unbearable lightness creeping into her hands. Holding them up, she saw that they were trembling.
Click, click, click.
Lowering them, she closed her eyes tight, and took a deep breath.
Click, click, click.
Whatever comes, this is my best chance, she thought. And now I have a job to do.
“Got it”, Emma said. “It was the impeller just across from you.”
“Is it fixed?”, Georgia asked, her mind careening back to the control room.
“Yep, looks like a software issue with that unit’s controller. It hadn’t been updated like the rest of them, so it wasn’t playing nicely with the others.”
Georgia opened her eyes. How odd, she thought. “How did just one unit miss an update?”
“I don’t know. I’ll log the issue, but in any case, it seems to be working fine now.”
Again, Emma looked down to the terminal. “Actually, I’d like to look into this a bit more,” she said, “So Georgia, could you head back to engineering and reserve the LifeTrac? And put in a work order for Thursday. We’ll need four hands at least, and if possible I’d like Jack on this one.”
“Sure,” Georgia replied, shaking her head. “Absolutely.”
Suddenly the door on the far side of the container blew open, crashing loudly against the corrugated iron. Startled, Georgia jumped back, her heart pounding. It was like being robbed, all over again.
“Huh. Windy day!” laughed Emma, barely looking up from the keyboard.
Two weeks had passed since ground was broken on the tank storage project, and as the village rounded out the month of January the heat had gathered and become almost completely intolerable. In decades past, Melbourne never went more than a few days without a cool change, but that stopped in the summer of 2022. The few years since had seen the mercury nudge higher and higher, with conditions more oppressive and threatening each summer.
The headlines were bleak and grew increasingly familiar, with a new species in the firing line every season. First it was the bats: hundreds of thousands dead in a single week. And as the rivers boiled, so did the fish, their stinking corpses poisoning the water for countless land mammals who died in staggering numbers. As the rivers became toxic, so did the estuaries, where massive plumes of algae choked out the coral reefs for which Australia had once been famous, their ancient beauty smashed by decades of industrialisation.
And though the horrible reality of climate change was now completely indisputable, it was too late. The drought had decimated the country's agricultural exports: even the live cattle revenue, that had once saved the treasury from default, now swung precipitously into the red, causing a devastating wave of foreclosures. By 2024, Australian farmers, once regarded as the toughest people that this land produced, were now homeless and broken, forced into the indignity of haunting an urban landscape that was unfamiliar and unforgiving.
The politicians were useless. All they'd learned from their years of political combat was how to deflect responsibility and enrich themselves such that when The Lucky Country's debts finally came due, they hadn't the faintest clue about how to correct course. Even the Greens, who had captured the balance of power in the Senate, and promised to do politics differently, were mired in yet another petty, intractable leadership succession. There was nowhere to turn, and nothing to be done. Thus it was as the state of Victoria faced its most fateful weekend.
Georgia sprinted full tip towards the dome through a hurricane out of hell. A dry, searing wind lashed through the gardens, whipping at her face and knocking her back. The heat was unbearable. She gasped for breath in air thick with smoke, dust, and the panicked calls of her fellow villagers. Finally, she reached the dome and, running inside, found dozens of her friends gathered around a TV screen in the atrium.
“Victoria ablaze, counting the cost of the worst bushfires since Black Saturday. At least 100 dead, the toll expected to rise. Entire townships wiped out. The fight far from over, with fires still burning across the state.”
Georgia burst into tears. The Bureau of Meteorology had been warning of a 50C day, but with humidity at 1% and wind-speeds over 100 kilometres per hour, this calamity was beyond all reckoning.
“Georgia, we have to go now,” Jack said, tugging at her elbow. “There’s no time. Michelle has mustered the entire bench, and everyone else is securing the perimeter.”
“Where is she now?” Georgia cried. “Where is Michelle? I need to see her!”
With a look of profound worry, Jack hesitated, “She’s in engineering… but please, make it quick! I need your help with disconnecting the batteries. If anything punctures them, we could have fires of our own.”
“I understand,” Georgia said. “I’ll be quick. I’ll meet you back at Helga in 15 minutes.”
With a terse nod, Jack took off like a lightning bolt out the doors and was gone. As the fullness of her situation came into focus, edges became sharper and colours harsher. Georgia pushed through the crowd, who seemed to be milling in slow-motion, and making her way to the elevator hammered the button repeatedly until the doors opened.
A group of engineers exited and Georgia quickly slipped past them into the cab. Mother is still outside, she thought. I need to get her inside. Only Michelle could help her.
The elevator finally reached engineering. The doors opened onto chaos - engineers sprinting between computer terminals, yelling back and forth and typing furiously. Amidst the glare of flashing red lights, Michelle paced back and forth, yelling at her phone over the cacophony of multiple, overlapping alarms.
“Jenny, no! We can’t take them. I’m sorry, but if we let them in they’ll trash everything looking for food stashes and barter we don't have to spare. And they won’t leave. I can’t do that to my people. I just can’t! I’m sorry, but you’ll have to find another place for them.”
Michelle put down the phone, her head hung low with exasperation.
"Michelle," Georgia called out. "My mother is in Mill Park. I need to go get her. She’s got no-one else, and I’m going. Even if you won’t let me back in."
Michelle looked up with a deep weariness in her eyes. “You know I just turned away two hundred hungry people from Whittlesea, right? Every person we bring in is that much less to sustain ourselves.”
“And besides, it’s dangerous out there,” she continued, her voice grave and forbidding. “You might not even make it to Mill Park. Jenny just told me the police have set up a checkpoint on Plenty Road at the M80 overpass. You’d have to find a way around it.”
“I have to go. I have to try,” replied Georgia.
Michelle looked away for a short while, and then said, “You can take my Jeep. But you have to take the radio too, because after you leave I’m not sure how I’ll get you and your mum back in.”
“Thank you Michelle. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
Racing furiously down the dusty path in Michelle’s black Jeep, Georgia pulled up to Supertree Helga just as Jack was clambering down from the battery compartment. He dismounted the ladder and Georgia, kicking up a cloud of dust, rolled up next to him, gravel crunching underneath her tires.
“Why do you have Michelle’s Jeep?” he asked pointedly. Georgia could tell she was about to get an earful.
“I’m going to Mill Park,” she replied, showing Jack the radios. “Michelle also gave me these.”
His eyebrows shot up. “If we lock the gates, how are you gonna get back in?” he growled.
She honestly had no idea.
“Look, Jack. I have to get my mother inside. If she stays out there, she’ll probably die! And I’m not going to let that happen.”
Shaking his head, Jack turned away angrily. He paused for a long while, his arms on his waist and head hanging. A powerful wind swirled all about him, his work-suit thrashing in the gale. But then he turned back and with a calm assuredness said, “I understand. If my mother were still alive, I’d do the same.” He closed his eyes and let out a long, deep sigh. “So I’m gonna come with you and watch your back. But the gates will be locked, so we’ll need a plan to get back in.”
Georgia’s eyes welled up in profound gratitude. Jack had become her closest friend in the village, and was a capable companion. His work-suit muddied with sweat and dust, he ran around to the passenger’s side and opened the door. He climbed inside, his face intense and focussed.
“I’ll radio around to see which gate we can leave through,” he said.
Georgia pumped the accelerator and they tore off down the central path toward the dome.
Bobbing back and forth as the Jeep bounded over the rough ground, Jack spoke into the handset: “Radio check. It’s Jack. We need to depart through the western gate in one minute. Repeat, western gate in one minute… Roger. I understand you're about to lock it, but we need to get out. It’s on Michelle’s orders! Roger that. We’ll be there soon. Over.”
“They’ll let us through?” Georgia asked.
“Yes, but they’re locking the gates after we leave. We’ll have to give Matthew a handset so we can radio him when we’re back, and hopefully he just can let us in.”
The Western gate was now just ahead, and a few villagers were running about, shouting back and forth. “There’s Matthew,” said Jack as he pointed to one of them. Georgia slowed the Jeep as they approached the gate, and Jack, rolling down the window called out, “Matthew! Are the gates clear?”
“All clear, Jack!” he shouted in reply.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, taking one of the radios. Jack opened the door and ran across the dusty cul-de-sac to where Matthew was waiting. Staring at them, Georgia sat for a moment, her eyes glazing over. Her head pounded, and she felt the urge to vomit. Taking a deep breath, she began rehearsing the route in her mind’s eye. I’ve done this trip a hundred times, she thought. If there’s no traffic, we could be there in 20 minutes. But that was a big if, and if the police warning was anything to go by, road conditions would be extremely dangerous.
Jack came running back from the gate, now opening behind him. Gust after gust roiled the parched earth, whipping up dust-devils that danced about the Jeep. The roads will be fucked, Georgia thought. Us too.
“Here goes nothing!” Jack said as he climbed into the passenger’s seat. Taking a deep breath, Georgia nodded in affirmation, “Let’s do it.”
Now a dense curtain of yellow and brown, the shallow, darkened sky churned grimly above them. The smoke of bushfires choked the air and obscured the sun, and everywhere the streets were littered with broken branches and trash.
They raced up Boldrewood Parade, past the BP station which had a long line of cars out the front. Ashes had begun to collect on the windscreen, and squinting, Georgia switched on the wipers. She could barely see a hundred meters out.
Then, Jack flipped on the radio and a woman’s voice, taut over half-hidden fear, said: “Flames. Lots of flames. Trees on fire, a hundred foot high. Embers. Branches falling. Animals running for their lives. Other people trying to escape… the fear on their faces, absolutely beyond belief.”
“Fuck”, Jack muttered. “This is bad.”
A radio presenter now continued: “Next we go to the MFB Headquarters, where the Acting Deputy Chief is addressing the press.”
“Hello, and welcome. Today is our worst nightmare. The CFA has called in as much of our capacity as we can lend, and truly, we’re in uncharted territory. The last time we had fire conditions like this was Black Saturday, but already these fires have spread further and faster. Tragically, we’re able to confirm that over 100 people have perished near Kinglake, but many affected areas are, as of now, completely inaccessible, and we expect that number to rise.”
They passed block after block of suburban housing with not a single person in sight. Everyone was inside huddled around their air conditioning units, trying in vain to keep cool. On a day like today, heat stroke could kill.
“We are urging all residents to stay indoors and off the roads. It’s of critical importance that emergency services can respond to incidents unimpeded, thus the police will soon be enforcing a civilian driving ban at various checkpoints throughout the city. Do not attempt to leave the city as you will be turned back. As has been the case for the last fortnight, there is a total fire ban in force, and emergency calls to 000 will be triaged for heat-and-fire-related incidents. We ask that you gather your family and prepare yourselves. Thank you.”
“Prepare for what!?” Georgia quipped.
Jack scoffed in agreement.
She winded through the suburban streets, keeping well away from any main roads where they might encounter a police checkpoint. Up ahead was the M80: mindful of Jenny's warning Georgia pulled onto Tasman Drive, to cut under the highway.
As they approached the mouth of the tunnel, fallen trees blocked the way, so she jumped the curb and drove along the footpath. Through the thick smoke, the other side was barely visible. Georgia flipped on the high-beams to pierce the shroud of smog.
And there, in the middle of road, was a person, lying completely still.
“Oh, shit…” said Jack. “Stop the car.”
With a lump in her throat Georgia inched forwards, and then stopped. Jack opened the door and walked forwards into the fog. Death by exposure, she thought, What a horrible way to die. She had heard of such cases before, but they’d all been far away; first in another country, and then out in the refugee camps. But certainly not in a suburban tunnel 20 minutes north of her home.
Jack crouched beside the motionless figure, and after a moment rose and looked back to the Jeep, his face like a stone. He shook his head, and after a brief interlude, began the work of shifting the body out of their path.
Completing his grim task, he returned to the passenger’s side and said, “When the police get here, they’ll block the tunnel and we won’t be able to get back through, so I’ll call it in, but not til we’ve got your mother and we’ve cleared the M80.” He climbed inside the Jeep.
This poor soul was taking shelter from the heat, Georgia thought, only to find that it was inescapable. She imagined them becoming delirious and losing consciousness before succumbing to the swift and cascading effects of heatstroke. It probably took only a few hours.
Exiting the tunnel, the Jeep’s engine roared to life, but inside Jack and Georgia observed a steely silence. “I reckon he was in his 50’s,” Jack sighed, “And not very fit by the looks of it.“ It was only another minute to Wisteria Drive. “At least we’ve made good time. Hopefully the trip back will go smoothly.”
Soon they pulled up to the front of her mother’s house, a modest one-story brick construction, typical of the Australian dream that countless young people had long abandoned. The blinds were drawn, and the exterior lights were off. Her mother’s Holden wasn’t in the driveway, either. Georgia was concerned.
They disembarked and walked briskly to the front door. “I hope to god she’s here,” said Jack. Georgia knocked three times.
“Mum! It’s me! Georgia! We’ve come to get you.”
It was a tense moment, but the door opened and there she stood.
“Oh… Georgia! What are you doing here?”
“Mum, you need to come with us,” said Georgia sternly. “It’s not safe here.”
“But there’s a driving ban! How did you even get here?” she replied.
Her mother could be as stubborn as her, and the clock was ticking. “Mum, there’s not a lot of time to explain.”
“She’s right.” said Jack. “Please, trust your daughter. Lock everything up and come with us.”
Her mother stood there, at first stunned, but then, with great apprehension said, “OK. Everything’s already locked up, so let me just grab my keys and we can go.”
Georgia’s mother disappeared back inside and re-emerged a short time later, keys in hand. “I don’t know what all the fuss is for. The fires are hundreds of kilometres away.”
Just then, they heard every air-conditioning unit on the block spit and sputter to a halt. Georgia and Jack looked at each other, and then out to the street where all the lights in all the homes had suddenly gone dark. Not good, Georgia thought.
She turned back to her mum, eyes widening in horror.
“What!? What’s wrong, honey?”, her mother pleaded.
It was a blackout.
“Mum… It’s time to go, now!”.
Georgia ripped down Tasman Drive while Jack scanned the radio for an announcement, but all he found was the emergency tone on every frequency.
“Damnit!” he cursed.
From the backseat her mother leaned forward, and placing a hand on Georgia’s shoulder asked, “Blackouts have happened before, so why is your friend so concerned?!”
Jack scoffed rudely, the stress was getting to him.
“Mum, it’s complicated,” replied Georgia, thinking of the Solar Village Manifesto. “People move to solar villages for many good reasons.” She thought of the first chapter, On the Peacetime Security Risks of Fossil Fuel Economies During Catastrophic Climate Change Events and said, “Look outside, mum. See those people leaving their houses right now?”
“Yes, I see them,” her mother replied.
“Well,” Georgia continued, “If their electricity doesn’t come back soon, their lives are in danger.”
“In danger? What are you saying?!”
“Mum, these people are rationing food and water. If they don’t pass out and die from heat-stroke, eventually they’ll run out of water, or their food will spoil and they’ll starve to death.”
Georgia’s mother sat in stunned silence, and after a moment cried out, “But surely the electricity will come back soon!?”
“Don’t be so sure,” replied Jack, turning to the backseat. ”Every officer, firefighter and emergency worker in the state are already responding to emergencies outside the city. Most of them aren’t here. If this is a downed power line, and it could be much worse than that, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have the people to fix it quickly.”
All down the suburban streets, people were starting to emerge from their homes, confused and afraid.
“I guarantee you a lot of these people aren’t prepared for what’s coming,” said Jack. “And they’ll rob their neighbours, if that’s what it takes to survive.”
He was right. Not all of Michelle’s Manifesto predictions painted a rosy picture, and though the solar village was widely admired, her theories about catastrophic climate change events were mostly ignored and untested by history. But today was an historic day.
Suddenly, the emergency tone gave way to a pre-recorded message.
“Attention. Attention. This is the emergency broadcast system. We have just been informed that blackouts are affecting the entire Melbourne Metropolitan area. The National Guard has been dispatched, and emergency workers have been mobilised to remedy the situation. To facilitate our emergency response operations, a civilian driving ban is in force. Do not attempt to leave the city, as you will be turned back. Do not attempt to contact emergency operations unless absolutely necessary. Thank you.”
“The National Guard?! This… has never happened before”, said Georgia’s mother. Staring blankly into her lap, she began muttering to herself as if adding up the situation. “We’re gonna keep you safe”, said Jack as he leaned back to comfort her.
This is a precarious moment, Georgia thought. Anything could happen. She pumped the accelerator, her focus all the sharper.
Intermittently up and down the street, people gathered on the sidewalk, attempting in vain to wave down them down. We can’t stop, thought Georgia. There’s nothing we can do for them. They were close to the village now, and in a disheartening sign more and more people were congregating along the street. Oakhill has food and water. And electricity. It won’t be long until all these people realise it.
The Oakhill dome appeared in the distance. “We should be in range.” said Jack. With radio in hand, he said, “Radio check. Matthew, come in. This is Jack. Do you copy?”
Then came the response, “Read you loud and clear, my friend. It’s good to hear your voice. Western gate is a negative. A crowd has gathered. I’ll let you know where to enter. Standby.”
“Already!?” cried Georgia.
Sure enough, as they approached the western perimeter there was a crowd of 50 or more, all shouting and calling out, some even throwing rocks and glass bottles over and at the wall. Georgia stopped a hundred meters short of the crowd, and looked to Jack, who anxiously clutched the radio near his head.
“North gate is affirmative. Approach from the west, do you copy?” said Matthew through the radio.
Georgia nodded at Jack. This was their moment. “Roger that, Matthew.”
“Roger, but just one thing. There’s a few people outside the gate. I need to move them. The window is small, but I’ve got a plan. Ping me when you’re 30 seconds out. Over.”
“Affirmative,” replied Jack. “Standing by.”
“It’s time to move. Alright, let’s do this!”
Georgia shifted into first gear and tore off along the western wall. Rounding the first corner, she gave Jack the signal.
“Break, break! Thirty seconds, over!” he shouted.
As the Jeep pulled round the final bend, they saw a small band of people running eastward, toward what appeared to be a blue bench-top water canister rolling away from them. Then Matthew appeared outside the gate and hurriedly waved them in.
The next few moments were all a blur. There was dust and shouting. The engine roared and gravel flew, and then, with a sudden jerk, the Jeep stopped and they were through the gate. They’d made it inside.
Having secured her mother, Georgia now sprinted furiously through the haze toward the western Gate, her body and mind pummelled by the stifling winds. All about her, the gardens that had once seemed so perfect had been transformed into a hellish scene of chaos and terror.
No music lingered; now, only the sound of a shed door banging open and closed on its hinges. She thought of the work she’d done, and how none of it mattered. The water tanks, so carefully buried, had been left unfinished and disconnected, unable to serve their purpose. Hot tears ran down her face.
The wind had flayed the Supertrees of their hanging gardens, their panels had crashed terribly to the ground. Georgia stopped and turned to face the dome. Its gleaming radiance had been banished, replaced by the reflection of a heaving and sickly sky.
Now approaching the perimeter, Georgia saw trash and rotting fruit litter the ground. She heard the muffled cries of an angry horde, and there was Jack, atop the wall, peering over the edge and ducking projectiles as they careened over him.
She climbed the ladder, sweating and straining under the effort, until she stood next to him. “Jack!”, she called out, but he did not reply. He only looked at her, with eyes open wide, showing a terror she had not seen in him before.
Georgia stepped forward and peered over the wall out at the ragged shamble of refugees below, and as her gaze swept across their swelling numbers she realised that Oakhill was now completely encircled with their desperate, tired faces.
“Hey!” one of them cried out, waving to Georgia. It was a young woman, just like her. “We need water!”, she yelled. “Please, let us in!”
Within a few short minutes the crowd had become a throng; angry, hopeless and menacing. “Let us in!” they chanted. “Let us in!”
Their faces seemed familiar. In better times she’d seen them on trains and in trams, with their partners at the supermarket, or filling up their cars with petrol at the service station. She’d watched them drop off their kids at school or queue up for a takeaway coffee on High Street. But now, Australia’s luck had run dry.
It wasn’t enough to save just ourselves,” Georgia thought. It wasn’t enough.