by Ari Lox
Science fiction short story. Rising waters and personal impulses collide.
I used my hand to keep the yellow fisherman hat on my head as I ran from the house's mud room to my backyard workstation. Meredith's ornamental bushes, heavy with rain, brushed against my clothes, splattering water everywhere. The gathering darkness of twilight hid this week's graffiti on the door.
The messages started earlier this year. It seemed every time I removed the spray-painted words the vandals knew it. Soon the words would reappear when I had returned from work at the University. Fortunately the lock stymied them from getting inside the meteorological station, my escape.
With the press of right fingers on the entry pad, the door retracted into the wall. I hung the hat and rain slicker on hooks by the door. Water streamed off them, onto the stone floor and through the grill to the drain pipe.
The torrent of rain pounded the meteorological station's roof. My lab's name sounds grand, but it's basically a place to pursue my hobbies. I've had it for three years. Last year was the water uptake cycle. The atmospheric temperature shot higher than the new typical. The hotter air sucked up moisture and didn't give it back. Drought. Until this year. High today only 67 in April. Imagine that. The water carrying capacity was much less this year. The atmosphere was giving it back to the ground. Ergo, the deluge.
I looked out the station's small door plastisteel window. Trees everywhere and rain and lightning. The forest above Lake Roland came up to the edge of our yard. From there and considerably shorter than the deciduous trees was the orchard that Meredith and I planted five years ago. Brazilian peppertrees. Although this was Baltimore, they grew well, even this far north. They were the local test stock for the bioplastic reaction.
The grove was flourishing with many peppertrees nearing three meters tall, but I came to check the weather stats. Why? I couldn't stand to watch another show hosted by Chef Sensarama. Meredith says that I won't do things to make myself happy. That's not true. Being out here makes me happy. I can check on the weather instruments--rain gauge, anemometer, barograph, sunshine recorder. They all stand in the central atrium, surrounded by the four corridor-like rooms of the meteorological station. I've been recording and enjoying the ebb and flow of rain and temperatures over the past three years. I admit it's an idle indulgence, but doesn't that show I do things to make myself happy?
It was just a bonus that I could get some peace and quiet to think out here, but not during this storm. I wasn't going out into the instrument shelter.
"Wake up, Monsieur Gay-Lussac. Open station," I ordered my computer assistant.
The inner windows gained transparency. The hydrograph was at a relative peak. The photon detector lay flat, near the axis. The weathervane indicated steady out of the southwest, while the anemometer on its three-meter rod whizzed about as fast as I'd ever seen.
A bright flash lit the weather atrium. I counted as our tallest tree, a tulip poplar, on the edge of our yard and the forest that the covered the hill down to the creek and eventually Lake Roland, bent far from the vertical in the strong wind. The thunder followed at the count of five. A mile away.
"Status and graphs, Gay-Lussac."
"Since the start of storm Maxim fifty-two hours ago," Gay-Lussac related, "Twelve centimeters total precipitation."
I touched the monitor for a year-to-date chart. Before the chart came up, I reflexively shut my eyes at another flash. Only a count of two this time, before the windows rattled with the thunder's boom.
Reopening my eyes, I was relieved that Gay-Lussac still functioned. I studied the cumulative graph. Rainfall since New Year's Day 2238, eighty-four centimeters. Thirty-three inches. Gay-Lussac flagged it, greatest accumulation year-to-date ever recorded.
I walked around the corridors, checking the atrium instruments. Another flash of lightning. It outlined the house roof. The solarium up there hadn't seen much sun this year. Through the darkness I spied the blue glow emanating from the exercise room. Meredith liked to power walk as she watched and listened to Chef Sensarama.
A super brilliant lightning flashed. Behind me. For an instance the lab was as garish as an amusement park. Immediately the rumble of thunder shook the station. I turned, but before I moved, the roof shattered.
I came to, woozy, to the scent of ozone. Slowly I realized that a heavy stream of water cooled and made my head wet. With more time, it occurred to me to open my eyes. I couldn't see anything. No light. I swiveled my head left and right. The water moved. I tilted my head. The water streamed down my neck. It no longer pounded onto my brain.
A heavy weight pressed on my legs. A desk or a cabinet. I tried to stand up. No luck. My legs didn't hurt, but they had nothing to push against.
It came back to me. Something smashed the meteorological station. I was inside.
Another bolt of lightning flashed through an opening in the ceiling. I could see. A thick stream of runoff flowed off a tree trunk lying through the station roof. In the count of four, thunder. Close, but moving away.
"Gay-Lussac, lights on." Was my computer friend okay? The starter of the fusion torch flickered, but then went out.
"Professor Shalimar, the fusion will not ignite."
"Obviously," I replied. Good, he survived.
The storm provided my light, intermittently. It was the tulip poplar that came through the roof. A number of dark objects at strange angles lay inside. For a moment, I remembered the fear of the Closet. I had to get out. Be free.
Wait. I had made it through that punishment. I would make it through this.
I decided to try rational thought. The tricky step with the low product fraction was ruining the production of styrene from xylem. Now I had time for an uninterrupted concentration, but my brain wouldn't cooperate. The stream of water didn't help. Every pulse that came up my neck throbbed and, no matter how I squirmed, met the drumbeat of rain water upon my head. My internal thoughts were vanquished by my external discomfort.
The weight on my upper thighs pushed them down, against a pair of unyielding beams beneath my legs. My feet had nothing to push against. Trying to rise up against the weight was impossible. Like Archimedes without a fulcrum trying to move the Earth. I banished that fruitless thought. Meredith laughed when I last made such a metaphor. Now I could understand why. Despite all my thinking, here I was, stuck under debris, unable to move.
My mind screamed for concentration, but my right leg screamed louder, twisted askew and painful. As a child, I had learned to suppress my feelings. The custodians favored the Closet for whiners.
"Gay-Lussac, connect me to the exercise room." I didn't want to ask her, but I was trapped. I couldn't get out on my own.
In a moment, my wife answered. "Bellamy, how unusual. A call from you. I thought you were out in your weather hut. What is it? I'm waiting to hear from the clinic. Keisha, the little girl from last week may have ... "
Damn. Would she give me a chance to talk? It's deep in me that an interruption earns demerits, but this is an emergency. "Meredith, a tree crashed ... "
"Bellamy, what did you say?" Before I could answer, she continued, "Let me turn down the volume. I can barely hear you." The voice of le grand chef on Sensarama lowered to background noise.
"The large tulip poplar fell onto the roof," I said. "Lightning or wind, I'm not sure which. I'm trapped under an overturned desk."
Meredith gasped. "Are you hurt? How bad? Do you need help?"
"What you think? My head's throbbing. I can't move my legs. I'm ignoring everything the best I can." I realized I was angry and she didn't deserve it. I took a breath, then continued, "Something from the roof hit me on the head. I may have been out for a few minutes."
I put my hand to my head. "My head's wet." I tried to see again, but it was too dark. "I can't tell whether it's blood or water. I woke with rain water flowing across my forehead. Except for lightning, I can't see anything. All the lights are out."
"How lightheaded are you?"
My impulse was never to admit a weakness, because it could be used against me, but I needed help. "A little bit," I said.
"Okay. Let me send Florence. She's just sitting in the corner, waiting for a task. Wait, if your bot couldn't get you out, mine might not be enough help. Let me call Search and Rescue."
I shook my head. Ach. My brain sloshed inside. "Hold a second while I collect my wits." As quickly as I could, I continued, "I don't have Gofor with me. It was just me and my compubot, Gay-Lussac."
"I see. An assistant inside the computer is not much help now, is it?" Her voice grew distant. She must have turned away from the mike, but I believe she said, "Florence, get Gofor and help the professor out of the mess in the backyard hut."
I leaned back, relaxed for the first time since the accident. "Thank you, Meredith. I appreciate it."
"If you appreciated me," she said, "you'd be with me more. I just happen to be handy now. Sit tight. Help is on the way."
I didn't feel up to arguing against her dig.
Gofor was a gangly bot. I had insisted he not have a face; otherwise, he was humanoid. Two thirds of my height, but more muscular. I insisted he not be able to initiate an action. Florence, the other bot, could pass for human in limited light. She was built to mimic Florence Nightingale. Meredith insisted on a medical mental loop, always gauging her surroundings.
They arrived with fusion lamps lit. Rain continued through the roof directly into my lab. A quick glance showed me the extensive damage. Florence gave me a quick examination, transmitted directly to Meredith, then she directed Gofor. They lifted the loose debris carefully, carrying it outside through the several-foot-wide gash in the wall. Soon they lifted the bulky wood cabinet off my legs. Relieved of the weight, I pushed against the floor and struggled to get up. Only to collapse before I stood. With a quick command from Florence, Gofor grabbed under my arms and lifted. Then I was able to stay up.
Florence raised her arm to stop. She walked in front of me and looked me over.
"Stand still, my patient." Meredith's voice came through her bot. "Turn your head left. Okay. The gash above your right ear appears to be several inches long. You are putting weight on your leg, thus it can't be a break. After they help you to the house, come up and I'll finish the first aid. If you feel dizzy, stop until it passes. I'll be monitoring and let the bots help."
I nodded. "Okay." Looking around, I saw the tree had wrecked some of devices and instruments as well as the building. I stepped outside. My peppertree grove was in disarray. The tulip poplar crashed through it. Three years of work, gone. Half the small trees were down, the other half were off vertical. With time, the orchard would recover. Peppertrees throw out basal shoots. The shoots had been pruned. Now they would be welcome new growth. That would add some extra years to my plans for local production.
"Wait, Professor Shalimar. You're bleeding." Florence wrapped my head with a towel. She and Gofor helped me across the wet lawn to the house. In the mud room, I stripped off my clothes and tossed them into the sonic washer. I instructed Gofor to bring them upstairs when they were cleaned and dried. I wrapped an old slicker from the mud room rack about me.
Meredith's good looks drew me from my first glimpse of her in the Enoch University library. I was in the front lounge reading B. F. Skinner when she jogged up to the front doors. I noticed her confident stride, her shapely form, and the friendly way other students smiled and bobbed their heads toward her. Several weeks later we met at a mixer. Her eyes sparkled with intelligence. I later discovered her deep blue irises were enlivened by sky blue flecks. She retained her allure, but since we married I discovered my wariness of others. I thought them prudent. She considered them inhibitions.
I must be lightheaded, flashing back to our first meeting ignoring my injuries. I winced when Meredith pressed near the wound.
"A little bit of pain is nothing to be concerned about." She opened my robe. "Let me have a look at the right leg." As she did that, she peppered me with questions. I suspect she was checking for addled thinking. "Out in your weather hut during the storm. Not very wise. Tell me, why was the east side of Baltimore abandoned?"
"It was 2194. Tropical storm Marietta raised the Chesapeake Bay level to sixteen feet above the old normal." I didn't tell her that my donors died in that storm, leaving me without sponsors in the Foundation. "Seventeen square miles of Baltimore, sixty thousand people lost their names. The place used to be called Dundalk. Of course, islands remain. Those local hilltops are now outside the official government."
"Very good. Jack Bressler calls that the birth of BaltSea. He grew up in Dundalk. Well, okay then," Meredith added. "You passed that test. Your memory's fine." She squirted a local anesthetic on my scalp. Shortly, she started stitching. "Let me know if this hurts too much." Without waiting for a reply, she brought up a new subject. "Did you know that Dean Borkowski and her partner are expecting? Near the winter solstice."
"Good for them," I said. "With any luck my Brazil project will be hatching styrene from xylem by then."
"You seriously can't compare the two." She pulled the next stitch tautly. "I have an appointment at the Genomic Center for a preliminary screening. We should be starting a family, Bellamy."
This was a topic that originated a couple years ago, when I had laid my professional objectives bare. Meredith had pointed out that I had not mentioned children. I learned again--honesty was not the best policy. It just created arguments.
"Yes, I do think about children when you bring it up." I didn't want the burden of caring for children, but I didn't want to argue about that. "I don't think I'd be a good parent. I'm glad we agreed on no children before we married."
"Dear, that was six years ago. We were poor graduates. No money. We could barely afford our little apartment. Now we can afford anything. I want a child."
I started to shake my head no, but Meredith tightened her grip. "Please, careful. Don't move."
The conversation was not going to end that way. "Really." I tried to sound astonished. "A child. That's like a naturalist who believes a woman's duty is to raise children. We've advanced beyond that primitive stage. In our society, you can do anything you want. The Foundation exists for procreation."
In the mirror, I watched Meredith pull one stitch up and pause. "The anything I want is to have a baby."
"But we agreed ... ."
"Babies, Bellamy, need to be raised by their mothers; otherwise, they grow up feeling unloved and antisocial. Besides, when conditions change, old decisions should change." She glared at me. "I thought you would grow into adulthood, not stay a Peter Pan."
My emotions were in conflict with my reason. I blamed my unsocial behavior on the Foundation, yet I bought into the idealism that governed the thoughts I heard daily at the university. I wasn't going to admit anything.
"I'm doing important work, Meredith. Bioplastics will replace the extraction of millions of barrels of petroleum which pollute the Earth in so many ways."
"Bioplastics. Pfft! My clinic helps hundreds, no--thousands of people right now and I don't mean to give that up when I have a child. You wouldn't have to give up your precious bioplastics either." She looked at me and frowned. It was as if she could see my soul and found it wanting. "Back then, you weren't the wunderkind, the prize of the chemistry department. You smoked dope or got drunk whenever you weren't at work. You have given that up. That changed. More could change. More should change."
"My bioplastics and the wrecked meteorological station will consume all my energy."
"What about us? What about me?" Meredith took a breath and finished, "What about my desires?"
I had logic on my side. "We already discussed it. You already agreed. No children."
"You are such a stickler, Bellamy. You follow every rule like it was a rule from on high. We're no longer children. I told you then I wanted to have children, but you insisted we would not and because I love you, I agreed then. Now things are different. Florence tells me I have gray strands in my hair. I want to be a mother, have that experience, before it's too late."
I hate confrontations and try anything to avoid them. I lifted my hand to where she had finished stitching. "My head's throbbing, Meredith. I hope I don't have a concussion." I stood up and wobbled a bit for effect.
"You think this issue is resolved, Bellamy. It's not."
Gofor came in with my clothes and the tea tray. "Drink this green tea, Bellamy. It'll help you relax and perhaps think clearer. As to the concussion, unlikely. However, I will be alerted if your vitals change."
"Okay," I said, "but I'm going to drink the tea out in the solarium." That was my favorite spot in the house. The three-sided glass room abutted the Trombe wall on the roof. The view of the saw-toothed solar arrays generating electricity while I rested pleased me. Although the salesman had promised an average of one hundred and fifty days of sunlight per year, Baltimore would be lucky to get a hundred days of sun in 2238. Also, the solarium had the vial of THC oil hidden in the futon cushions. A calming and healing balm with green tea.
The next few weeks became a single everlasting day. In the morning, I examined the results from the previous night's experiment; in the afternoon, I updated my ideas; and in the evening, I started a new regime of reactions with new concentrations, targeted energy inputs--all attention focused on increasing the styrene fraction.
Refugees straggled into Meredith's clinic from lands no longer protected by the Middle Patapsco Levee. Helping them back to full health consumed her ever-lengthening day. If they weren't suffering from viruses, bacteria, or prions, they had broken limbs or were half-starved from living on lands ruined by floods, which were no longer capable of supporting communities.
When we happened to be at home at the same time, the only thing we could do that we didn't argue about was work in the yard. Meredith worked with Gofor and me. Actually, she directed and Gofor and I rooted the new peppertree shoots.
Repairing my meteorological station would have to wait.
Our awkwardness made the event tonight a harder task. It was my first invitation to a State of the University event. Meredith and I would have to talk civilly. The event wasn't held at the main campus in north Baltimore, but at a more secure site. Bigwigs would be there.
Meredith and I listened to Chopin nocturnes in silence as we approached the Markov center. The Markov center lay miles west of the city in a suburban outparcel. It was my first visit to this outpost of government-sponsored satellite operations. An iron fence enclosed the area. On the roofs of long, low brick buildings scores of white convex antennas scanned the skies. It felt so organized, methodical and powerful. Like the Foundation, but with more power.
It was exciting, arriving on a warm, muggy summer evening, especially because I was to be given the go-ahead on my project. A long line of vehicles, all self-driving and levitating a foot above the ground for smoothness, slowly inched forward as they disgorged their passengers.
However the attendees were not the only ones interested in this event. A crowd of unkempt protesters milled in the grass behind the university guards who lined the driveway. A guard tapped on our vehicle window with his stun stick. We got out. He leaned in and punched in a parking location. Meredith said, "Let's get this over with."
At first all I heard from the mob was noise, until I made out a harmonica tune with a repetitive message.
? Help us ?
? Save us ?
? Don't abandon us ?
A small man of indeterminate age with a torn red beret and filthy clothes thrust a placard in our path.
HELP THE INNOCENT
I recoiled but intended to push the sign back at him, but Meredith pulled on my arm. The weather-beaten man smiled at her and said, "You know what I mean, lady. Nature is ruined. Science caused it."
A guard came to our rescue and pushed the man back, out of our way. "Bother the guests again Chet and it'll be the stun for you."
Chet scowled. "Break the rules. Go to hell now. Follow the rules. Go to hell then."
Meredith slowed, but I grabbed her hand and kept walking.
The crowd continued singing their protest.
Thankfully we soon reached the cascade of concrete steps which led into the circular Markov Center. I turned to Meredith. "What you think he meant? Science is the cure, not the cause. The other way around is crazy talk."
Meredith gave me an appraising glance. "It's not the first time I've heard that sentiment. They're angry. They've lost their houses, their jobs, their neighborhoods from floods. Many lost members of the family. Now they live in camps on isolated properties, unable to go back and with nowhere to go forward. They say science profits the Elites without thought of the cost to the Freemen. Their world is destroyed."
I wanted to respond to that, but every path would lead to an argument.
We gave our names and made our way through the milling crowd to the right front table. Meredith didn't wait on protocol. She rushed forward, leaned over, and bussed Tamesha Li on the cheek. Meredith knew the head of Petro Plastix from their undergraduate days at Goucher College, and they have been friends ever since. I nodded to Tamesha and her husband, Felix. I was glad they were there. I could use buffers.
Gustav Nilsen had a seat at our table. The Scandinavian botanist with a graying, bushy beard who kept to himself flashed an eyebrow hello. Even less of a gabber than me. The seat next to him was open. I took it. For tonight's program he would discuss his sabbatical under the waves of the lower Chesapeake, observing the change in sea life as the salinity declined from the huge freshwater increases of the bay's tributaries. His office was in the next building to mine. Not infrequently, I was greeted with his eye flash when we crossed paths, each of us looking for an isolated spot to eat lunch.
Yet tonight was different. He talked, mentioning his surprise at enjoying the company of people after months alone. I think it was him practicing the use of his vocal cords.
I nodded, sipped water, and peered into the table's basket of rolls. Was the wheat guaranteed pure-made or were they made from grains of the fields with all their likely contaminants? I split open a round roll. No discernible perfections.
Meredith whispered in my ear. "Talk. Don't just nod. People here have influence and you can influence them."
I knew of social chitchat but hated it. It was useless. If my idea was any good, then when I offered it, people would decide it on its merits. Not because of nonsense like we both agreed it was warm or how politely I passed the salt. However, although it's difficult to admit, I have learned that Meredith knows things that I don't. I'd give it a try.
"Tamesha, nice to see you and Felix. How's business?"
Tamesha Li was a tall, well-groomed black woman with an imposing presence. When Meredith had first introduced us years ago, a memory of a matron from my early years popped into my mind. Although Tamesha turned out to be Meredith's faithful friend, I never could warm to her.
"It's business I'm here for tonight." With a casual finger wave, she included Felix into the conversation. "Felix and I worked up the Petro Plastix response to your styrene project."
Felix smiled and shook my hand. Toward Meredith, he said, "A pleasure to see a friend, not just business acquaintance."
"So true, husband." Although I didn't understand the scope of her remark, Tamesha turned and scanned the tables behind us. She waved to a petite, attractive, dark-haired young woman at a back table. "That's Lucia Reyes. She is on Felix's staff learning the petroplastic elements. I've taken her under my wing. I believe you know her, Professor Shalimar."
Yes, I recognized Lucia Reyes. She had been my prot until she dropped out of the PhD program just short of her defense. No explanation. Just a short message saying she had to quit.
"I wondered where ... good to see she landed on her feet." I explained my disappointment to the table about losing such an excellent researcher.
"I understand your disappointment," Felix agreed. "Lucia's already very valuable to us. Her knowledge of bioplastics helps us with our more advanced syntheses."
"If she stood up," Tamesha said, "you would see she is expecting later this year."
"Who's her partner?" I asked.
"Dean Borkowski." Tamesha and Felix said as one.
That surprised me and made me want to rethink Meredith's earlier comment, but before I could, a tall man with unruly straw-blond hair and a wide grin walked over from Lucia's table.
"Hail and hello," the stranger greeted us in an overly familiar way.
"Meri." The fellow came up to my wife with his hand outstretched. "I wasn't going to bother you. You up here at this important table, but when you looked over ... you must be happy for a day away from the maladies of the refugees."
"Yes, Jack." She stood and shook his hand. Turning to me, she introduced us. "Jack Bressler, another helper of the dispossessed. My husband, Bellamy."
I nodded curtly to him. He seemed to take that as an opening. He sat down. "Your wife is loved by the community. They wish for many more like her to help them."
My face must have screwed up, for the lout added, "Around the clinic, she treats everything from measles to malnutrition. You must have noticed that Chet excused himself to her when he thrust his placard forward."
Meredith's mouth opened and she flung her fingers up and away in a gesture of innocence.
I turned and accused him. "You're friends with the protesters."
He chuckled off my indignation. "Sure am. They got a legitimate beef. The University rakes in the solars, wraps itself away from their problems, and makes a token contribution to Meri's clinic. She can't handle the many thousands displaced from the river floods and yet Enoch University declares itself a hero."
Jack surveyed the room, and in a loud voice declared, "The money spent on this affair could easily fund another doctor to help in the clinic, to help people."
People from nearby tables glanced sternly at our table. Jack had returned his attention to us, doubling his top lip over the bottom in a peculiar manner.
"You're in here," Felix said, "Celebrating, not outside protesting."
"I get hungry too." He answered with an unselfish chuckle.
Meredith shook her head and scanned everyone's face--Gustav, Tamesha, Felix, Jack, and lastly me. "Don't everyone pick on Jack. He's an essential part of helping the refugees. After he does his regular job, monitoring stream banks, counting water life, and measuring sediment carry, he's the liaison between the park rangers and the tent cities. He helps set up and organize refugee camp sites. We owe him a lot."
Gustav Nilsen put his finger to his lips. "Shush. Doctor Shalimar, the dean." He turned his back on the table and gazed fixedly at the podium on the dais. Finally, the formalities were starting. Good, the end to this confusing conversation.
Dean Hillary Borkowski, an attractive, fortyish woman with striking, platinum blonde hair, brought the meeting to order. She listed successes of the past academic year, singled out this professor or that project for special praise. All the while I nibbled on rolls, hoping that I didn't eat some god-awful natural poison.
Official rigmarole and speeches put me in a tharn state, a trance where thoughts in my head had more reality than events before me. The rate of northern migration of Brazilian peppertrees was on my mind when a familiar name sounded in the background.
I looked up. Meredith gestured with her hands, a faint upward movement. All eyes were on me.
I half stood up. A titter went through the audience.
"All the way up," Dean Borkowski said. "You know, Professor, you can't be shy when you're leading," she glanced quickly at her notes, "one hundred employees in a bioplastics factory in a foreign country." With a casual sweep of her hand, she pushed some recalcitrant strands of hair behind her shoulder. "Enoch University will fund full-scale cellulose to rubber prototype factory. The intention is to replace the existing petroleum process. Please, inform us further about the advantages of your process."
I went into autopilot. At one time it worried me when I had to talk in front of large groups, but then I discovered if I cared about my topic, I could get through it with scant attention, in a dissociated state like the one I fell into when locked in the Closet when I was a kid.
All the while that was whirling through my head, my mouth described the chemical processes and as a closed system, no pollution escaped the confines of the factory. An additional benefit was that the source trees replenished themselves in decades rather than the hundred millions of years required for petroleum.
The dean stopped me at some point. "Thank you, Professor. We get the idea, through your tendency to speak as if the reactions and processes were displayed on a whiteboard next to you. A final question. Are the arrangements set for your stay in Manaus?"
"Yes, we leave July 5 for Rio. From there a flight to Belem, then up the Amazon. I expect to return and present the product fraction at a symposium in October."
I sat down. Meredith gave me an odd look. I leaned over and whispered, "What?"
"You'll have to go alone," she replied. "I'm not going. My work at the clinic must continue. People depend on me there."
I caught an inquisitive peer by Tamesha.
Fortunately the dean called for Gustav Nilsen to give his report. She congratulated him for his year undersea in the Nereid. His findings on the rate of change in sea creatures and their population would drive studies worldwide on sustainable ocean cultivation.
I didn't dare ask about the filthy conditions the sea creatures grew up in. They were clearly unsuitable for civilized people to eat. I guess considering who was going to eat them, it doesn't matter.
"Before we get to our final speaker, there is an important item that I'm pleased to formally announce. As some of you may have heard, we are founding a new campus in the higher Piedmont, near Hagerstown. Ground will be broken on the administration building shortly. I, along with the deans of specific schools, will take up residence first. All further development for Enoch University will be on the new campus."
A snort of derision. From our table. Could only be that uncouth Jack Bressler.
"That's a prudent step," I declared to the table group. Tamesha, Felix, and Gustav nodded in agreement. Meredith kept her face impassive.
"Can't you see they are abandoning BaltSea and its residents?" Jack asked. "Next they will move schools from the city campus to Hagerstown and shut down the clinic."
"That's not true," Felix declared. "The new campus is for new schools."
"You're brainwashed," Jack said, "unable to see what's going on."
Felix shook his head. "It's you that don't appreciate that government services belong to government taxpayers."
I opened my mouth to argue for the helpless, but Meredith was quicker. "The government must serve all its population."
The dean's amplified voice overrode us. "Now I have the distinct pleasure of introducing the CEO of Petro Plastix, Tamesha Li. We all want to know what she thinks about the prospects of Professor Shalimar's new bioplastics."
Tamesha walked to the podium. "Thank you, Dean Borkowski, for the opportunity to address this fine audience. First I must say, it is our Corporation's pleasure," she nodded to her husband, "to help the University continue its commitment to superior education at the new campus, high above the dangers of physical disruption of Baltimore."
"See," Jack said, not quietly.
Tamesha Li glanced at Jack as if he were a flea, "Some people would prefer the markers of civilization to be swallowed by change. I am not one of them. I am not a quitter." She gestured toward me. "Professor Bellamy Shalimar, the husband of my long-time friend Meredith Shalimar, presents a different challenge. Petro Plastix has long been at the forefront of efficient chemical processes to create useful plastics from petroleum. This new process offers the chance of a new input. We have decided to underwrite his prototype factory. It is a long way from styrene, the output his process will produce, to rubber. It's also a long path to neuro-polyprene, the sophisticated plastic used in robotic brains, and much more costly plastic.
"The professor's work and Enoch University's support are not a threat to Petro Plastix but an opportunity."
Although Tamesha's remarks confused me, the dean ended the meeting, ignoring questions.
We stood. Some ate cheese with its unknown microorganisms, sipped drinks from small cups, and discussed topics of the night. No minds were changed by the reiteration of the points already made.
I asked Gustav about his plans. He admitted that he had to teach two classes in the fall, but confided that tonight was too much talking for so little result. He would spend the summer on his submersible, the Nereid, studying the upper Chesapeake Bay near the fresh inlet of the Susquehanna River.
After Meredith said, "I meant it. I am not going," we were at an impasse. Our way home from the Markov Center was a quiet ride. Although I wanted her to come and would miss her, I was going myself. My whole life led up to this effort. I was leaving for Brazil in July.
Often after an evening meal of guaranteed artificial nutrients, I scanned the network for news of the day, eager to escape the confines of my work. A few days ago, a video showed rowboats of red-jacketed men marauding through abandoned row houses that were newly exposed by receding flood waters. Who were these red-jacketed characters? Were they returning residents? At the clip's end, the announcer pointed that the ships were heading east, away from the wrecked neighborhoods of west Baltimore, and toward the hilltops of ungoverned BaltSea.
Today, a spectacular gunfight broke out in southwest Baltimore. Some houses on rises in the land were still occupied. They surprised a red-jacketed raiding party.
I can make cheap styrene, but not valuable neuro-plastics. My world's falling apart. I ended the day with mem-ex, but in the middle of the night, it wore off. Afterward my dreams were of clinic patients eating neuro-polyprene to fight off starvation, only to die in floods.
I awoke with determination to complete my process, to provide the important bioplastics, and banish what I couldn't control from my thoughts.
The early days of June went by. Could I fabricate neuro-polyprene from my raw stocks or must I break peppertree cellulose down to different raw products? My days started including more and more nights. When I was home, I ate in the solarium, imbibed strong cocktails, and slept on the futon. Days went by without a word between us.
Neuro-polyprene, the plastic that Tamesha had singled out, was far beyond my technique. I broke cellulose down to butadiene and styrene from which synthetic rubber and other useful plastics could be made. I had overlooked some economic realities. I thought I'd be competing with Petro Plastix, not cooperating with them. I hadn't considered targeting their needs until the meeting at the Markov Center. I had only thought about replacing their old petrochemical standbys. They consumed the most petroleum and created the most pollution.
One afternoon, footfalls in the hallway, long after students had left for summer vacations, let me know visitors were on the way. I walked to the bench by the vacuum hood, turned on the blower, and focused on a titration.
Despite my effort to be unavailable, I was filling the second pipette when a sharp tap on the safety glass demanded my attention. It was Lucia Reyes.
"Professor Shalimar, Tamesha Li wants to talk."
I shook my head. "I'm busy. Perhaps tomorrow."
A voice behind me said, "I'm here now and I'm paying the bills. Lucia."
She turned the hood blower off.
I removed my hands from the work gloves and turned to face my benefactor.
"Good to see you hard at work, Professor. This won't take much time. The questions, Lucia."
"Yes, Ms. Li." My former graduate assistant handed the head of Petro Plastix a screen of bullet points.
Tamesha walked to the front desk. She scrolled my experimental log.
"Well, Tamesha, you have my attention. What is it?"
"I can't find the answers in your log. We need read rights. And review rights as well." She paused then asked, "Where are you with neuro-polyprene?"
I laughed a bit. I believe she knew me well enough to recognize that was nerves. "Since you mentioned it at the State of the University, I've familiarized myself with its chemical, electrical, and connectivity properties. It would help me greatly with my fabrication efforts, if I knew the steps you use from petroleum stock. If you lifted the proprietary shield, it would avoid some tedious work and speed things up."
Tamesha glanced at Lucia, who nodded.
"Okay. I let Felix know. Lucia, return to the car. Continue working on the activity list I laid out this morning. I'll be out in a few minutes."
After Lucia left, Tamesha said, "Meredith told me her clinic couldn't keep up with the flood of refugees which followed the overtopping of the Middle Patapsco Levee. Thousands of people with few belongings have escaped from Linthicum. Many are camped in the steep hills around her clinic. Did you know that the shoulders of Freedom Dam were overrun in the last storm, endangering the valley below the dam?"
Meredith hadn't told me. I didn't want to admit it, but ... . "She shows her concerns in a weird way," I could hear the petulance in my own voice, "by never coming home."
Tamesha rolled her eyes. "She needs to talk about this and a thousand other things. Okay, the base question. I agree with your desire not to have a child. What a drag on personal freedom, but can't you slow walk her to nothing ever happening? Go along, but not now, there's Brazil, then later something else. Always a reason to delay, while you emphasize her crucial importance at the clinic."
She paused, looked fiercely at my face.
A shiver ran up my spine, a Closet shiver. I waited.
"Meredith has always been out of step with the spirit of the times," Tamesha admitted. "I blame it on her parents. Free-spirited artists who taught her an individual's needs are more important than society's. You need to make things right with her, so I can advance bioplastics as fast as possible. I want you to tell her you'll do it. Then delay all you want."
I shook my head. "That is not within your scope at CEO of Petro Plastix."
"I know she won't go to Brazil. You must see the cause and effect. You won't support her need to be a mother so she won't support her your project."
"Having a baby is her giving in to an atavistic urge. We've evolved beyond that. Now women can be anything they want. And before we were married, we both agreed to not to have children. I don't know why I have to explain this to you ... "
She tsk-tsked me. "You're as frozen in your mind as she said. Although I don't agree with her, I can see her logic. Don't you know the old saying? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a little mind." Now it was her turn to laugh, mirthlessly. "You fancy yourself such a big brain. Hah!"
Some things had changed. That much was true, but I was the same person. I didn't want to bring a child into a world that was splintering.
I didn't reply to her jibe. "Okay," I switched back to the original point. "It's agreed. Both sides will share all research and processes on neuro-polyprene."
Last night's perfect dinner of triglycerides and cellulose downed with the elixir of health--water, vitamins, amino acids, and minerals--satisfied me greatly. No polysaccharides, except cellulose, of course.
Yesterday evening another fierce storm opened with a lightning strike that knocked out central power. I scanned the night sky for electric lights. None. The dorms were as dark as the streets of the shops several blocks away.
Later in the evening lights popped on around the campus. Necessarily the campus had its own fusion generator. I recognized the pattern of power restoral from a meeting I was dragooned into earlier this year. Bioplastics were low on the power priority. My experiments would not rage out of control, like gene-splicing. I could restart from the beginning. The only area of less immediacy was material engineering.
I dozed off last night with the sounds of windblown rain magnified by the absence of the whirl of air-conditioning. This morning happily, power was restored to my lab.
I restarted the Kenner-Kahn reaction, attempting to attach a fourth electro-receiving group on each strand of the polystyrene's backbone. Adding the first three electrical conduits had gone smoothly, but the fourth was giving me fits. The volume of the earlier strands blocked the new one from attaching.
Petroleum-sourced neuro-polyprene had six conduits. I had a way yet to go, although not as far as artificial had to match natural neurons with their ten thousand interconnections. Still, my much easier task could take many months unless I got the Petro Plastix techniques.
An email message from Felix alerted me to a new access path, but my excitement was short-lived. Although I could read their patent applications, there were neither reaction processes nor internal memorandums dictating the sequence of operations.
I walked to the lab front window. The view was clear now that the storm had left, but the problem remained. This storm must have hit Meredith's clinic hard. Before I knew what I was doing, her contact number was ringing.
"Patapsco Relief Clinic. Can you hold?" It was her automatic response.
"Hello. Meredith, can you talk now? It's me, Bellamy."
She walked over and entered the view screen. "I don't have much time."
"You look good," I said, "but very tired."
"And busy." Meredith sighed. "What's up? So you decided to talk. Have you changed your mind?"
Damn, this was more abrupt than I hoped. Not that I wanted idle chitchat, but having a child has many ramifications. I wanted to discuss them fully before I had to answer the question but she didn't give me that chance.
"Meredith, you know my upbringing was not easy."
She puffed out an expression of disdain. "You're no longer a child. You can no longer blame things on your parents. Now is the time to be an adult. Let's start a family."
I wanted to explain, but didn't know how. I said plainly, "I don't want that."
"Well, that's it then." She lifted a finger to sever the connection, but before she could, Jack Bressler burst into the clinic.
"Got to move all the patients to higher ground. It seems water can't get over the Freedom Dam spillway fast enough. The dam could fail."
"I'll come help," I yelled across the distance.
Jack walked into the image. "No, you'd just be in the way." He turned to my wife. "Meri, let's go." He snapped off the computer.
I overdid it last night. Not on work, not on mem-ex. I needed to feel joy amid chaos, but LSD was not the answer I hoped for. I dreamed again and again that refugees who made it to the clinic died from eating neuro-polyprene. To get back to sleep, I read Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." As my eyes grew weary and my concentration lagged, my bioplastics merged into a white albatross. My efforts were a solution chimera. Such efforts caused the present problems. The Anti's slogan NATURE GOOD, SCIENCE BAD suddenly made sense to me. I must work with nature to achieve the good, not try to bend nature to my will.
This morning the veins in my head pounded against my brain, against my thoughts. I'd been up too long, thought too hard, and become stuck on the signal-passing channel. Everything was assaulting my senses. I snapped off the classical music. I covered my ears, but a distant throb continued.
There was a rumble. Outside. It couldn't be thunder. The sky was clear. There had been no rain for several days.
Leaning out my office front window, I spied a large crowd walking beyond the elevated, brick walkway near Enoch Hall. A steady buzz of noise came from them. Briefly, they disappeared behind the brickwork. When they reappeared, I noted placards, waving banners, and several smoky plumes rising from what I couldn't make out. Since the notable white portico of the administrative building was lost in the storm of 2207, I was able to see the people crowd the front steps of Enoch Hall.
A tall figure with a large head of hair rose up the front steps. He turned and faced the mob with a megaphone. I could only make out a few of Jack Bressler's words. "Pollution" and "abandon" stood out as did his arm movements gesturing dramatically toward the inner sanctum of the university.
The crowd responded by waving their signs and hollering even louder.
Suddenly Jack stopped and glanced over his shoulder toward the building. The double door entrance swung open. A deafening air horn blast silenced the crowd. A file of uniformed security officers marched out and lined the rim of the platform and down the step sides, isolating Jack from the crowd. After another air horn blast, Dean Borkowski came out to the top of the steps. She looked down at Jack and his followers.
"Greetings." Her microphone broadcast clearly, even to my outpost. "I see you are upset, but you are upset with the wrong people. We at Enoch University are your friends. We are helping. We are doing everything we can with medical supplies and recovery camps. Helping you is our goal. Our mission." She gestured down toward Jack. "Even your leader, Professor Jack Bressler, is on the University payroll. We want you to disperse."
Jack disappeared from my view as he backed away from her, but his voice was clear with his megaphone. He shouted over the dean's voice, "I quit."
The crowd roared with approval, drowning out anything else he might have said. Despite my distant perch, although the words were unheard, the emotional rage was undeniable. A tattered figure with a red beret ran up the staircase and threw a sign at the dean. An officer broke it in half while others grabbed Chet and threw him back into the crowd.
The dean turned back to the Enoch Hall doorway and gave a quick head movement. In short order, the far doors on both edges of the administration building's ground floor swung open. Helmeted soldiers with side arms poured out, marched forward, and formed a defensive line between the mob and the building.
"I understand," Dean Borkowski said," that many of you have not prospered in these alternating times of floods and droughts. You have my sympathy. You did not develop skills that were needed. You are here trying to make us feel guilty for your failures. That's what you are, failures. Be grateful for whatever we give you. Go back to your pitiful lives."
Turning her back on boos and jeers, she reentered the building. As soon as the front doors closed, the troops cocked their electroshock rifles and marched forward. The protesters gave way before the shocks. I realized the crowd was being broken up into smaller groups.
Under the onslaught, a female protester fell down. The officers continued forward as though they would march on top of her. Jack ran to her, brandishing a flaming torch, giving the woman time to get up and out of the way. Once she was safe, Chet grab the flaming torch from Jack. He ran away from the troops, toward the biology building between Enoch Hall and my lab. I pulled back inside, shutting the front window. It would not do to be seen by such riffraff. I should be safe.
Realizing the side windows wouldn't expose me to them, I peeked out. Flames were flickering inside the biology entry. Chet, the damned little terrorist, had broken a bay window and thrown his torch inside.
Would my building be next?
The sound of the Antis' riot shrank as I raced out the delivery bay at the back of my building. I ran hard until I reached a neighborhood adjacent to the campus. In a shadowed yard I found an unsecured solar electric bike. After a rain cycle and in the middle of the night--hah! I pedaled south. I had to be careful. Trees sprouted out of broken sidewalk that once fronted bustling stores. I moved to the center of the street, when the roar of an explosion behind me told me the riot had intensified.
Taking one last look back toward my home of the last five years, I saw orange and yellow flames reflecting off the low clouds. Then my thought shocked me--I thought of the lab as my home, not my house with Meredith.
What would stop the rioters?
I called my Markov tablemate. "Nilsen, it's me. Shalimar. If you've got anything valuable in your lab, you'd better get it out of there. My lab is going up in smoke now. Take some backup and go in the back way. Good luck." I hung up while Nilsen was asking a question.
That done, I felt relief rather than my betrayal. There would be time for that later.
My plan required prompt action. I pedaled down Charles Street. The asphalt had remained smooth until 25th Street. Then my pace slowed as I avoided asphalt twists and dips. At North Avenue, the old art district was history. Boarded up, a few widely scattered lights visible through upper windows, high above the intermittent flooding. It seems a century, actually twenty-five years, the Foundation took us to see the ancient film, "2001" in the theater there. It was no longer open. People--rich, happy, well-dressed and safe--sat at corner tables, sipping coffee and nibbling on sweet rolls. Couples strolled by, holding hands. That life seemed beyond my reach. Little did I know that the area would dissolve before I had the chance to wreck my own life. In those bygone days, thousands of lights illuminated the district. These days, the closest maintained road was a half mile north.
The new harbor relied on duck vehicles with tank treads. They shuttled goods up to firmer ground where they would be transferred to trucks or trains. A few blocks south of North Avenue, a panhandler jumped out from a darkened alleyway with his hat extended. I swerved away and shook my head no.
When I arrived at the new harbor, I found it nearly deserted because of the Independence Day holiday. A lone guard at the gate sat on a lounge chair outside the little shelter. The guard stood up, his gun leaning against the shelter wall.
"Halt," he greeted me. "Who goes there?"
I hopped off the solar bike and onto the floating pier. "Professor Bellamy Shalimar. Professor Nilsen sent me to get the Nereid."
The guard shook his head. He eyed me suspiciously. "My orders are to let no one aboard the little submersible."
"Things change." I walked slowly onto the ramp toward the guard. "I just left my colleague the campus. Rioters set fire to his lab. He's escaped north with a caravan of equipment. I'm to meet him at Port Aberdeen with the Nereid. From there he'll proceed to his research center at the head of the bay."
He shook his head again and reached around his back for the shore phone.
I surprised myself. With the guard's inattention, I rushed forward and pushed him into the water. From there I ran to the Nereid ramp and onto the submersible's top deck. Quickly casting off, I ignored the guard's yell from the water and started the engine. As soon I was clear of the other moored ships, I throttled the surface engine to the max. It was not long until I passed the harbor buoy. Soon the floating pier disappeared in the darkness and I could look forward.
When I reached the bay marker, I followed it toward the ocean entry, away from Port Aberdeen.
The world is just too hard. I could never atone for my sins.