It Was a Good Idea

It was a good idea. I still insist on that. And I truly had the best intentions. Again, I insist on that. At this point, I have refined the calculations to a degree that I can explain the runaway effect which surprised us all so badly. The particular solution is, of course, only a guess, but it describes all the parameters we experienced. A very narrow band inside the chaotic region, the initial conditions being precisely those necessary to push the equations into that band… It really was bad luck. A microscopic miscalculation, a tiny mistake in my estimate of a single variable. Bad luck, I insist on that, too!

By ‘we’ I mean, of course, every living being on the earth. Almost all of which are now dead. The ice sheets have now met at the equator, and surely almost nothing has survived above ground. Colonies of cyano-bacteria, perhaps, along with a thin film of our syn-algae covering the ice.

I keep reminding myself, I didn’t kill all life. Life will go on, on Earth. Perhaps new intelligent life will even evolve and thrive. The conditions now are similar to those prior to the Permian evolutionary explosion. The epoch of the so-called “snowball Earth”. If we can figure out how to kill the bio-bots, the synthetic algae cells we made, if we can shut them down, the CO2 will return, and the ice will melt again. And life will come back to Earth.

The problem is our synthetic algae is self-replicating, self-organizing. We made it too damn well. I did, I mean. I made them too hard to kill.

Of course, it is too late for us. We haven’t told the colonists. In fact, we’ve chosen the opposite route. Videos praise the endurance of the Cavers, as they call themselves, and offer images of the re-emergence into garden Earth. The earth we knew before we killed it. Before I did. Once the bots are de-activated, we tell them, the ice will melt and life will bloom again under the sun. And it will. What we tell them is mostly true. If we can kill the bots, life will bloom again, though in forms we can’t predict.

But that won’t happen for hundreds of thousands of years. And humans and all the remnants of the past we’ve brought with us into these caves will be long gone by then.

I had meant to save us, of course. To solve the global warming crisis by sequestering CO2. Thus preserving, as they like to say even now, “our way of life.” I suppose one could speculate about the nature of solutions which try to maintain the status quo by mitigating the necessary consequences of that status quo. One might even say that we over-valued our “way of life”. That we should have changed, rather than trying to fix the problems our way of life had caused, without changing our way of life. But all that is idle talk now.

My solution linked two emerging technologies in a radical new way. Nano-technology integrated with synthetic life. The company loved my idea, and funded a lab and a team for me. Synthetic-life molecules were designed based on algae cells to absorb CO2, producing electricity along with glucose in the process. My world-saving invention!

The individual cells replicated like amoeba, and could combine into still-microscopic clumps that became independent nano-bots. Their molecular circuits held only a few hard-coded commands, a simpler embedded programming than an old DVD player. The bots would self-organize into a regular quasi-crytalline mat covering the pools we grew them in, collecting CO2 and passing electrons to the next cell out to the edges of the mat, where it was drawn off as power. Waste in the form of glucose was extracted as the fluid substrate circulated through a closed system. When the cells exhausted themselves, they disintegrated, dissolved into the liquid. New cells floating freely would take their place.

It was a self-maintaining system, for the most part. All we had to do was pump nutrient solution through the pools and pump air through the hermetic enclosures. The air would leave the plant with far less CO2 than it contained when it entered.

We built our first full-scale power plant in the Saudi desert, and it was a huge success. Our synthetic algae grew on the surface of a special solution and were fail-safed to require that particular substrate to survive. Growing in shallow pools inside the greenhouse enclosures, the syn-algae soaked so much CO2 out of the air that if the great pumps pushing fresh air into the greenhouses failed the atmosphere would quickly be entirely depleted of CO2. That was a feature, to us, a second fail-safe for our syn-life colonies. They wouldn’t reproduce until the CO2 levels rose again. We reassured the public with such nonsense. They would de-activate, I was certain, if the nutrient supply was exhausted or if the CO2 levels fell too low for them to function.

We now know the precise mutation that caused the problem. We have even located the base pairs involved, which is the source of our hope to kill them. In the simplest terms, a small genetic change allowed one of the cells to use the oxygen in a water molecule as its fuel source. And thus it no longer required our unique substrate to survive. One cell was enough, because that altered base pair was passed on when the cell disintegrated and replicated itself into many from the substrate solution. We could have detected the slight rise in hydrogen, but we had no reason to test for it. The air exchangers were adequate, and the mutated algae weren’t noticed. At some point, one of those mutated cells took a ride on an evaporated water droplet into the air above the pool and out through the ventilators into the open.

Out in the wild, our bots had no predators, no fail-safes, and all the water in the world on which to live and reproduce. And we had no idea what had happened until it was far too late. The first reports of strange clumps and mats of unknown algae hit the news less than ten years ago now. It’s hard to believe, but that’s the law of exponential growth. They were noticed because the mats made an unusual blue fluorescence, an effect of the electricity they were releasing. “Beautiful blue glow reveals unknown algae species” said the first headline I saw about it. My heart dropped, as if I knew that something terrible had happened. But we had seen no fluorescence in our facilities, because we were drawing off the electricity.

I ignored my intuition as unreasonable paranoia. We might have had a chance to stop it then. But the first sequestration plant was a huge success and garnered world-wide praise. It was held up as the ultimate solution to the climate crisis. And I was its inventor. We were signing enormous contracts with nations and corporations for new plants in many countries. These were the best days of my life, the accomplishment of my dreams. I had fortune, fame. I flew around the world to speak, to consult, to receive awards. I was praised, and made an advisor to the UN special council that had formed to confront the climate crisis.

It was more than six months before an abrupt decrease in CO2 levels world-wide brought the unknown algae back to my attention. No new plants had gone online yet. It didn’t make sense. But when I saw that data set posted on the web, the glowing algae and my intuition came back to me. I knew what had happened. Our experiment had gone awry. I went straight to the board of directors that very day.

But six more months were wasted in a futile attempt to hide the truth and somehow locate and eradicate the algae wherever it was discovered. That was a company decision, against my wishes, again I insist! The rest will be history for as long as history exists. As the algae spread exponentially, CO2 levels plummeted. Some fools even praised us at first for halting global warming, but I knew better. Temperatures dropped to alarming levels worldwide during the second winter, almost nine years ago now. (Years mean so little to us here below the surface, but we hold onto to the anachronistic day and night and the calendar of the year as tradition.) Frosts came to the tropics, and that year spring and summer never arrived. Snow fell daily and piled higher and higher. More fragile than previous civilizations, the structure of our society crumbled almost immediately.

I broke the company’s order of silence— the fools still feared being sued— and informed the Climate Council of the truth. The only survival would be underground. The “caver colonies” were constructed so hastily that one, Carlsbad, collapsed entirely under the weight of the ice, killing all ten thousand colonists inside.

Instead of blaming me and tearing me limb from limb as they should have done, I was given the charge of organizing research into the solution to the syn-algae, here in the tiny Oregon Caves colony. After all, who knew the technology better than I?

I was one of the first to go underground. I didn’t witness the chaos and horror that must have taken place on the surface, as the snows persisted and the ice sheets began to spread. Power and transportation failed in the unrelenting storms. There was so little time to prepare. It must have been a terrible ending to our culture and to our world. To all those people. To everything.

Tomorrow I’ll be speaking before the council again, by teleconference, as I do each solstice and equinox. Old traditions, here underground. My team and I will describe our tremendous progress in solving the genetic problem of de-activating the bio-bots. In the Mammoth Caves Colony, I’ll tell them, another group is investigating a means of releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere once the bots have been neutralized. They have drilled into a seam of coal that could provide the material. There is new hope, I’ll say. My team will be behind me as I present our work, smiling in clean lab coats. Our tone will be confident, our timelines will be optimistic, our arguments will be persuasive.

And they will all be lies. We cannot survive in these enclosed environments long enough for any fixes to take effect. Hell, we couldn’t even keep the Bio-domes functional with all the resources of the world available. Maybe if we’d had a little more time to prepare. But we didn’t, and so we are doomed.

But I persist, nonetheless. I work long through the night, unable to sleep. I work to solve the problem, to find the codes, to build my last masterpiece, something I can inject into the outer world to negate these tiny beasts I created, these invisible monsters, these microscopic doomsday machines that I made as if in a dream. I work to kill my own creations, and so to restore the earth for life. Not for myself, or for any human being, but for a new epoch of evolution which will never come to be if I can’t undo what my good idea has done.

Ken Zimmerman (c) 2019

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