Science Fiction

Darwin twisted around just in time to catch the strap of his pack as it slid downhill. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Covington. Now, about that fossil there. Strangest thing I ever saw. Let’s see if the earthquake shook loose any more bones. I think the earth is done misbehaving for the moment.”

Syms Covington, the brown-haired fiddler and cabin boy pressed into service as Darwin’s assistant, began digging in the soil near the latest find. He had become quite good at picking objects of interest out of the rocky soil. Darwin had even begun letting him label the specimens. In fact, Syms thought he might be doing a better job keeping his records than the naturalist himself.

On his knees now, Syms cast aside rocks and pebbles as he examined the ground around him. Darwin stood above, brown-haired and well-muscled with blue-gray eyes and ruddy cheeks. Slowly and methodically, Syms fanned his attention outward from the location of the last bone. Darwin took pains to look where Syms stepped, making sure that they didn’t overlook something right beneath their feet, and stood ready with the hammer. The small hole developing in his left boot was getting bigger, making him shift back and forth to center the pit over relatively big, flat rock. The day before a misplaced foothold drove a sharp splinter of granite into his sole. Darwin shifted his weight from left to right, dislodging some of the loose debris around them.

“Sir, why not step away and relieve the pressure on your injury,” said Syms, noticing Darwin’s change in stance. “There’s no reason to stay right here. If I find anything I’ll bring it over to you. At least take a drink from that flask you have there. It will remind you of home.”

“Damned if I want to be reminded of home, Covington! The tropical luxuriance in Valdivia and these long treks are making me long for holiday in North Wales. At least there a good, hot meal awaited me at the end of the day.”

“Sorry, sir. May I take your hole, sir?”

“My hole? What hole is that, Covington? You’ve barely begun to clear away the debris.”

“Sorry sir. I meant your spot. That’s what we call it in Bedfordshire, sir.” 

“All right then,” said Darwin, throwing down the hammer. “As you were.” Darwin seesawed away, favoring the sole of his good boot, and within a few moments leaned up against a big black boulder perched precariously above the site of the dig. He took a long swig from the flask on his belt and stoppered it back up. Moving away and uphill from the boulder, Darwin haphazardly scanned the accumulated scree. He sighed heavily, and then drew something out of his pocket. It was a handkerchief, filthy and torn from long use. Back home he’d have thrown it away ages ago. Wiping the cloth on his forehead left a dirty smudge.

“Damned bloody voyage,” he exhaled miserably.

Suddenly, his attention was caught by a mysterious, shiny object, just to his left of where the talus met the valley shoulder. Could it be a piece of quartz glittering in the sun? Some fool’s gold? Or something else? Who could have visited this remote spot and left behind a piece of metal? It had taken nearly half the day just to reach this mountainside. And there would not be anything here which any but a fool naturalist could possibly want. Could there be?

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Principles of Geology

The force of the tremor knocked Darwin to his knees. He’d felt the earth move beneath his feet on the slopes of volcanoes, but never such a jolt as this. It felt like the ground had fallen out from under him. The staff in his hand slipped through his fingers and dust began billowing up around his feet. Darwin didn’t feel like he was in danger; in fact, he felt more afraid when climbing tall trees in search of reptiles and insects for his shipboard collections.

Darwin stood and immediately staggered again under the force of another jolt, this time a weaker aftershock. Birds that had settled to the ground in search of security rose up in flocks around him and flew out to sea. Is this how Lyell’s uniformitarian geology works, thought Darwin? Does the earthquake somehow determine the rise and fall of continents? If so, it wasn’t so slow and gradual a process as Lyell thought, occurring over long eons as natural forces worked away at the land. Sometimes of those forces felt downright catastrophic. Perhaps the biblical account had something to recommend it. A smaller shock, building up slowly in intensity shook Darwin from side to side, and his feet struggled to find purchase in the deep gravel beneath his feet.

For some reason, he began thinking about the coral reefs he’d seen from the deck of the Beagle earlier in the voyage. They seemed to rise and then sink beneath the waves because of similar forces — volcanic stresses rather than quakes, but natural nonetheless. Perhaps when the land collapses in an earthquake, somewhere else — simultaneously — another strip of land is being pushed up? Atolls worked this way, he reasoned. As the islands slowly slipped beneath the waves, elaborate coral catacombs built up on their surface, struggling for just enough filtered sunlight to keep themselves alive in the shallow pools. Most of the coral eventually died as fresh new coral heaped up on top of the old. Mountains of coral could build up in this way, even as the original volcanic mount underneath the pile subsided away into the deep.

Maybe earthquakes knocked together new mountains as the sea floor slipped away. Or, earthquakes knocked down the mountains as volcanic action pushed them back up again somewhere else. Sort of a cyclic system might develop that similarly caused the rise and fall of whole continents. Darwin trembled at the thought. His hands began to shake and he felt bile rise in his throat. He’d need to talk to the ship’s doctor about that. He’d been violently ill several times in recent days. But then his mind provided distraction once again. He muttered out loud to no one, “But how to test such a theory?”

Fitzroy’s cabin boy, clinging for dear life to a trunk on the other side of the clearing, interrupted Darwin’s reverie with a shout. “Look out sir, your gear is about to fall in the water. Your clinometer will be lost –“

Meet Your Meat

A week earlier, Nelson Magar had been quietly munching his McDonald-McDonald’s burger in the UWI Student Union. He wasn’t much surprised by the nutritional value of the meal. What really surprised him was how delicious the burger, manufactured in vitro in the lab, really was.

“Best human ever,” he told his lunch date, the ravishing grad student Amie Emig from English.

“What?” she asked, only half aware of the conversation.

“I said, best human ever.”

“What do you mean, ‘best human ever’? Where is the best human ever?” Amie looked around at the surrounding tables, trying to discern which admirable person Nelson was referring to.

“The burger,” Nelson motioned. “The McDonald-McDonald’s is made from artificially grown human stem cells. And delicious. It’s a work of art.”

“Oh Jesus, Nelson. I wish you wouldn’t talk about it that way.”

“What way?” Nelson asked.

“You know what I mean,” Amie rolled her eyes. “Acting like you’re a cannibal because your meat comes from a human being.”

“But it does,” Nelson replied. “And it’s totally scrumptious. This McDonald fellow, or whatever his real name is, tastes just like a Petit Jean ham.”

Amie stood up, and then sat down again. With a suddenly faraway look in her eyes she asked Nelson to tell her again how North Americans ended up eating burgers seemingly more artificial than the styrofoam clamshells they came in.

“It’s really pretty amazing,” said Nelson, now holding up his last bite of greasy flesh as if it were a museum piece. “Around 2010 scientists at the University of Maryland discovered that they could grow meat in a bioreactor in sheets — that’s why they jokingly called it “shmeat.” Meat was already getting scarce after the droughts of those years, and ranchers couldn’t keep up with the demand. So most of them, the successful operators anyway, sold the last of their animals for slaughter and invested in meat making technology. It’s healthier and victimless. Even PETA came around to accepting it, even though the first cells harvested came from live animals. But those animals weren’t killed, just had their cheeks scraped.”

“That must have been amusing to watch,” said Amie.

“Yeah,” said Nelson. “But the real leap came when those same Maryland researchers discovered that they could make allergy-free meat products by using stem cells from the end-user, the customer himself. You can’t be allergic to your own self, and that meant that people who had allergies to, say, glycerin or natural flavorings or gelatin — which is in everything — could finally eat everything that the rest of us ‘normal’ folks could eat. They were just consuming little bits of themselves.”

“You make it sound disgusting.”

“Not really. No more disgusting than biting your nails and ingesting the little slivers that come off. Or swallowing the saliva in your mouth, which is pretty much inevitable. … Or eating your own boogers.”

“Yech. See what I mean? Disgusting.” Amie made to stand up again. She looked cross-eyed for a moment, focusing her attention on the timestamp imprinted on her head-mounted, stylishly baroque spectraglass.

Nelson leaned in to Amie, putting his hand on her knee. “The rest is history. Now I can enjoy just about any flavor of human I want, including this Scottish fellow who is probably right now living it up on the Spanish Riviera. All he had to do was give up the private ownership of his body parts.”

Amie still looked non-plussed. “What’s that called again?”

“Autophagia, Amie. It’s not a crime and not a mental disease. … Go out with me Friday night?”

“Nelson, I’ve got work to do. I’ll never finish my thesis if I’m at the bar, eating Nelson fingers or whatever it is you intend to do with your cells.”

“Is that an offer or an invitation?” smiled Nelson as the two stood, hugged, and parted ways.

A New Heaven and a New Earth

“The first planet we will need to terraform will be Earth,” said Professor Roslyn Torgrimson. “And the reason we’ll need to do that is to save humanity from extinction. We are using up our storehouse of surface minerals and fossil fuels at an alarming rate. And the renewables — food, wood, and water — are being turned into products at an exponentially increasing rate. We are already seeing signs that the continents are in imminent danger of collapse, due to the burrowing activity of mining nanites.”

Professor Torgrimson, her thick brown hair now graying at the temples, turned away from the audience to clear her throat before continuing.

“The planet is collapsing.” A gasp from some of the younger members of the audience.

“Or rather, the nanites are turning the relatively ordered layers of the planet’s crust into a randomly assorted scree of artificial debris. Some of this debris is accumulating in piles as garbage, some gets recycled into other products, and a vanishing percentage is virgin products formed from freshly dug materials. That’s the stuff that gets consumed or used in our homes. … And the best thing to do is let that happen.”

Now a general murmur from several corners of the room. Togrimson looked small and frail as she stood below the raked seating of the auditorium, filled to capacity on the university campus of the University of Western Iowa.  Since the war, UWI had become the leading engineering institution in North America, a large bronze plaque bolted to one wall a testament to the successful efforts on campus to create new superweapons to defeat the heavily armed but disorganized narcobosses who had controlled Central and South America for more than a century. Some of the inventors of NA’s winning armaments sat together, frowns deepening, along the left wing of the room.

Nelson Magar couldn’t resist blurting a challenge to the professor — his mouth frequently got him in trouble in the science courses he audited despite a major in philosophy. “We can’t let that happen! The melting poles have already submerged one-third of the landmass of the Earth. Why would we want that?”

Togrimson’s cobalt black eyes came to rest on the student, piercing his forehead and boring to the back of his head.  Nelson remained still, refusing to give way to the curiously intense glare of his mentor. Dear god, thought Togrimson, I’m going to have trouble with that student someday, especially if he intends to finish a graduate program in geoengineering rather than the harmless humanities.

“I know that most of you are looking expectantly to the stars, and to our efforts to restart the geomagnetic field on Mars. I too have been hoping that by rebooting the electromagnetics of that planet we’ll be able to start melting the ice buried near the surface, and thereby create an atmosphere that won’t get blown off into space.  But I believe that we need to put off that effort for the time being in order to save the planet we are sitting on this very moment.”

A disturbance from the direction of the esteemed armament makers on the fringe of the audience. “Dr. Togrimson, the young man is asking you a direct question. Could you please get to the point? It’s getting late for some of us, and students will be disappointed if we’re unable to pull ourselves out of bed in the morning to teach our seven o’clock classes.”

Snickers and light applause from many quarters.