Sat cross-legged on quivering floor, Jan Caragee reached out above his head and, without looking, shifted the dial on the Ersatzrain™ machine from ‘Spring Mist’ to ‘Summer Rain’. The nozzle above him opened silently, the mist coalesced into large droplets, the temperature rose almost imperceptibly, though Jan felt the skin of his entire body ripple with pleasure.
Jan had never run with gay abandon through a corn field drenched in life-giving rain, white cotton shirt saturated and unbuttoned to the navel, like the Ersatzrain™ advert intimated the ‘Summer Rain’ setting would make him feel, and as he looked down at the matted silver hair channelling rivulets of water over his paunch to the plug below, he thought that it was perhaps for the best; white cotton shirts unbuttoned to the navel was not his style.
He ran both hands through thinning grey hair and leaned forward to place his head under the main nozzle. He was instantly engulfed in the white noise of droplets cascading about him. The relentless background drum roll of water pounding on the ship’s metallic floor was joined by a delicate foreground, almost unbearably intimate, sound of smaller droplets bouncing off the top of his protruding ears; a delicate sound of minute bubbles popping and ripping tissue paper; a tamely crackling fire. He allowed the small streams of water to pour down his face and collect into a pool in his mouth, jutting out his bottom lip to form a reservoir. A faint chemical taste agitated the back of his tongue. “Chlorine?” wondered Jan absent-mindedly, “or something worse?” Even the most efficient Ersatzrain™ water filters could only claim to have 93 percent uncontaminated water in their tanks; a percentage enviable in most conglomerate countries water supplies, let alone in their luxury appliances. Jan retracted his lip with force to jettison the liquid cargo onto his stomach, disrupting momentarily the silver-haired valleys that led the water to the plug, then to the storage tank, then through the Ersatzrain™’s “unique hydro-filtration system”, back through the nozzle in the guise of ‘Summer Rain’ and into Jan’s reservoir mouth once more.
He thought abstractly about this miniature water cycle. “If I were to colour one drop of water red somehow, how long would it take to complete an entire circuit? Not long. A couple of minutes maybe? This is the older, ten-litre model, the one with only three settings; ‘Downpour’, Spring Mist’ and ‘Summer Rain’. No “all-new Autumnal Squall with state of the art side nozzles””. But it was still a luxury, one Jan in his normal life could never have hoped to enjoy. He remembered, sitting on the floor in front of his great-grandfathers armchair. The monotonous ticking of the imposing grandfather clock ominously beating time from the hall, the small electric heater on full blast all year round, even in the scorching summer afternoons, the small thimble on the mantelpiece, his great-grandfather’s nicotine-stained gums; like seams of amber in a desiccated cave. His great-grandfather had boasted of having to have an Ersatzrain™ every Sunday night before school when he had been a young boy; that he’d hated them – dreaded them, not knowing how luxurious and desired they would become in the ‘great water dearth’.
Suddenly Jan awoke from this vivid daydream, felt the familiar knot of panic starting to stir in his bowels. Why had he gone to that fusty living room of his great-grandfather? He hadn’t wanted to. It was happening more and more on this journey into solitude. He pushed it from his mind; drowned the living-room memory in thoughts of the present, let the droplets cascade upon the crown of his head, turn to white noise the beating of the clock. The present… Reaching above his head once more, he turned the water pressure up slightly; the Summer Rain became more vociferous, pounding down upon him, bouncing up to meet itself from the metal floor.
Though Jan tried to keep himself in the moment as much as possible – instructed that concentrating on his current situation rather than losing himself in remembrance was the best was of alleviating the melancholy of loneliness – memories seemed to be forcing themselves upon him. As the water poured down, another thought – one lying dormant and forgotten – sprang into his consciousness. The image of his Physics teacher from when he was about twelve. A stern figure who insisted upon wearing a bow tie despite the barely concealed ridicule it provoked from pupils that most of his classmates had despised. “Take any glass of water, if you’re lucky enough to be given one”, the teacher had said, “and within it, there will be a molecule that passed through the body of King Henry the Eighth.” Jan knew now that the point of this example was to illustrate just how many molecules were in a body of water, but at the time all he could think about was ‘King Henry’s molecule’ and the ludicrous search for it. Every time he drank a glass of water – an act that became more and more scarce throughout his life as rations bit harder – he would think “have I drunk King Henry’s molecule yet? Is it hiding at the bottom of the glass, scared to go through the rigmarole of digestion once more? Or is it bustling its way to the surface, eager to become ‘my’ molecule; to add another body to its list of those passed through? Or is it clinging to an imperceptibly small colony of molecules, unreachable, destined never to be imbibed again; to cling to its vestigial royal connection forever unsullied? King Henry’s Molecule eternally.”
Though the fascination with water has stayed with him, such fantasising had been all but beaten out of him through his long and illustrious career in science. Instructed at school, reprimanded at university, and shunned as an academic, Jan had learnt to keep such thoughts in their ‘rightful place’; in the realm of personal whimsy. Again an un-called memory was triggered in the waterfall of the Ersatzrain™. As a recent post-doc. fresh from the cloistered idyll of Brasenose College, Oxford, he had submitted a paper to an eminent scientific journal entitled “King Henry’s Molecule: On Colony Behaviour and Residual ‘Memory’ of Water”. It was supposed to be a think-piece, slightly humorous, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but backed, he felt by some ‘real’ science. He recalled the acerbic rejection letter with crystal clarity (it hadn’t taken them many words to express their disapproval):
“Dear Mr. Caragee” (Mister, not doctor; the disdainful tone set). “The flights of fancy advanced in your paper are not the work of a true scientist, and thus do not fall under the purview of this journal. Might we suggest a more esoteric publication? Perhaps something in the field of homeopathy (or science fiction) would be more apt. Yours sincerely etc…” Had Jan been a more self confident man, he would have framed this letter and hung it in his study to chuckle at with friends. But he wasn’t. So instead he had ‘lost’ it in a sea of other paperwork. But he knew – he always knew – exactly where it was. Though the rest of his memory may be dulling in its lack of recall, the shame – and location – of that letter still stood out like and angry red buoy.
Jan shook away the demons of remembrance as best he could. The water pouring unabated around him must be on its fiftieth cycle around now (the Ersatzrain™ small print stipulated that after about thirty continuous cycles, the internal filter would begin to clog, and water quality would be impaired), and it played off Jan’s back relentlessly. It had become tiresome now, but Jan had no desire to leave this private enclave in his cabin and return to the real world of worry and work. He reached out a wrinkled hand to the dial above him and switched back to ‘Spring Mist’, but he overshot. A clunk from the nozzle above and a millisecond later, Jan was met by a torrent of ice-cold water pouring upon his head: “the invigorating sensation of a torrential ‘Downpour’”. A young couple dressed in formal wear; he a tuxedo, her a ball gown – drenched and clinging to one another – laughing at the incongruity of their situation, bonding, becoming closer, sharing in the moment, their white teeth flashing. So the advert said. Here the living tableau advertising ‘Downpour’ was transformed into an old man spluttering and yelping in a remote corner of a gargantuan space ship. The incongruity of the situation was just as vivid, but the laughter was absent, so too the person to share the moment with.
* * *
Minutes later, having recovered from the shock of the unwanted ‘Downpour’ and turning the dial to its central position of ‘Spring Mist’, Jan was once more cloaked in a cool cloud of water vapour, back resting against the carbon fibre wall of the Ersatzrain™ enclosure, knees pulled up against his chest. Once more his mind began to wander; like the beginnings of sleep; fought but inevitable.
That waspish, cutting letter had changed the course of his academic life. He had completed a second degree, hidden even from his family, in cultural anthropology whilst at his first lecturing post. He had taught himself Spanish – regarded by many now as an archaic language – from a series of books, and completed a second doctorate in just two years. The title of this secretive thesis was ‘The Cultural Significance of Water in Latin American Society 1990-2090’. That the thesis was published was no accident; it was still the best thing he had ever written (though his most recent project – a follow up study entitled ‘The Political Influence of Water 2100- present’ would match it, usurp it as his magnum opus, he felt, if only he had the time to finish it; the main reason he had embarked upon this ostensibly perilous, though actually long and tedious mission in the first place). That the publication of his thesis led directly to him being seconded into the upper echelons of the United North American Federation government had been complete happenstance, as least as far as Jan’s own ambitions had been concerned.
Despite its truly colossal size, there really wasn’t really a great deal to the ‘Aspidochelone’. A cavernous central corridor, along which were the occasional unassuming door; each one exactly the same; grey wall, black door, with a ribbon of yellow beading around the doorframe. Every one of these doors was locked; to Jan at least. Though the corridor seemed unending, disappearing into a haze of distance, Jan had explored very little of it. The desire to do so had waned in the face of its monotonous mundanity of the never-ending corridor. Having exhausted the modest surroundings of his own cabin – a bed, a small desk and chair, a non-descript screen (which he half played with once, but could not switch on) in the corner of the room, and the beloved Ersatzrain™ – and having subconsciously closed off his mind to conceptualising the sheer size and isolated position of the ship, Jan slipped predictably into a quite normal routine: wake up, go to the lab, pretend to work for a period of time, come back, Ersatzrain™, read one of the books he had brought, sleep.
Directly above the corridor, running its entire length and ballooning out on all sides to a truly magnificent size and incomprehensible volume was the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ storage tank. Jan had never seen it, nor had he detected any discernible entry point to it in his limited exploration of the corridor, but somehow he was always abstractly aware of its presence; its hollow magnitude, its cathedral like emptiness, its impending destiny.
A scale model of the ‘Aspidochelone’ and its monumental tank had been shown to Jan just one month before he had embarked upon this journey by a rather demure general covered in medals and insignia. Jan had no clue as to the precise meaning of any of these trinkets, but each screamed power and importance at an almost ludicrous volume. The ship had been secretively under construction for some years, constituent parts being assembled in orbit around Earth. Jan had remarked in jocular manner to the general, in an attempt to break the oppressive atmosphere, that the ship looked like one of the ill-fated Zeppelins of antiquity, and asked the general if he was going to fill the thing with hydrogen to get it to float. The general had not responded well to the quip. Jan had not seen much of him after that. When first Jan had tentatively set foot on the hulking colossus, he had walked as though on eggshells, reacting to every groan and shudder he had heard; always conscious that only a comparatively thin sheet of metal alloy separated him from the instant destruction of absolute vacuum. However, having been on the ship for three months now – and with the prospect of six more to come – he found he had to remind himself where he was; in space. This had begun to frighten him more than the precariousness of his surroundings and size of his transportation, having
to remind himself where he was and what he was doing here, each time a memory disrupted his linear experience of time. ““Who am I” will be next on the list of things I have to make a concerted effort to remember” Jan had joked to himself, though the prospect of this state of affairs terrified him more than he let on even to himself. He convinced himself it was due to the boredom – the mundanity of his current existence, accompanied by the ubiquitous hum and shudder of the unseen engines below powering him and the ‘Aspidochelone’ to its cargo, though the sickening feeling of loss and fear was never fully consoled.
* * *
But today – irrationally – Jan’s spirits were high. Though the relativity of time was made painfully apparent when you hadn’t seen the sun for three months, Jan had stuck to his instruction to maintain a fairly rigid routine with a fastidiousness that had surprised even him. He had been something of a creature of habit back on Earth, but here he had turned his routine into a set of commandments carved in stone. The slightest discrepancy, the slightest variation, could wreak havoc on his anguished mind. So he had been waking routinely and precisely at 6am (whatever that meant now) and forcing himself to spent the whole working day in the laboratory; either writing short snippets for his new book, conducting a couple of spurious, and invariably unsuccessful, experiments, or just reading.
Today there was a spring in his step as he made the always uneventful, though always surprisingly long, walk to the nearest transport alcove. He was dressed in bottle-green corduroy trousers and woolly jumper. He had never worn such stereotypical and old-fashioned ‘Englishman’ attire before, in fact he had resented such a look profoundly when he had first arrived in the U.N.A.F. from Oxford. But the sheer inappropriateness of his outfit as a ‘space suit’ appealed perfectly to Jan’s sense of humour, and he had stocked up on cardigans, tank-tops and floral shirts before leaving. He had stopped short at flip-flops however, not because it wouldn’t have been funny, he just hated wearing them!
The transport shuttle was unquestionable Jan’s favourite part of the day; the only aspect of his ‘space adventure’ which had not as yet dulled into regular, quotidian happenings. The transport track – a singular slick black beam in the centre of a small arch-topped tunnel – sat no more than two metres back from the main corridor, accessible through a small alcove only two metres wide. Were it not for the mustard yellow sign in the corridor standing out vividly from the uniform grey of its surroundings, Jan would walk straight past it. Indeed, on a couple of occasions when his mind had been uncooperatively wandering of its own volition, he had walked straight past it, severely denting the day’s routine. Whistling a tune the name of which escaped him, Jan pressed the small yellow ‘call’ button and stood back. A low, distant rattle, followed by a high pitched whine joined in with the constant hum of the ship’s engine. The whining grew louder and higher in pitch. On most days, the ratcheting tension this crescendo of noise created frightened Jan slightly, but today the noise brought back a memory of the whistle from an antique kettle in his parent’s house years ago. The thought was blasted from Jan’s mind as the whistle reached its highest possible pitch, then disappeared. Jan was left to question (without any means of establishing an answer) whether the whistle continued on past his limited aural perception, but the query was dismissed with the philosophical reasoning that “if there is only me here, and I can’t hear anything, then there is nothing to hear!” Moments later a small ‘container’, the same yellow colour as the call button and sign, and just big enough to house one passenger, glided into the alcove, stopping with a slight noise of compressed air being released.
Jan clambered into the pod, pressed the small button on the armrest, and settled back into the cheap plastic-effect bucket seat. A reassuring ‘ding’ emanated from above his head and the pod jerked into life. A noticeable change in air pressure and a sensation of being squeezed and pushed in all directions accompanied a soft clunking from below. Then the pod began to glide effortlessly along the tunnel, picking up speed. Jan let his eyes drift to the simple schematic of the ship’s corridor above the Perspex window in the pod. The window now appeared frosted by dust, and only a baffling haze of strobing lights could be seen through it. The schematic above showed the journey of the pod along the ship. The corridor represented by a deep, luminescent blue, liquid line of light was peppered by some forty-eight (Jan had counted them numerous times) small dots which flashed, then remained illuminated in, familiar mustard yellow as the pod continued past other alcoves. This colour scheme of permanent blue and vibrant, darting yellow dots still struck Jan as beautiful and thoughtful design features; he was sure they were not exclusively for his benefit.
Beneath dot twelve, counting backwards from the right hand edge of the screen, Jan had stuck a small square of graph paper; beneath dot five, counting from the left, another. They marked ‘home’ and ‘lab’ respectively. Just in case. At first it had irked him that these two points – the only two he ever visited – were so far apart. “They must have known” he complained to himself “I’d be the only one knocking about on this ship. Why not put my cabin right next door to the lab?” But now that the pod journey remained the one exciting reminder of his fantastical and unexpected surroundings, he had come to enjoy – to look forward to – his ‘commute’, replete with blinking lights and soothing colours. Jan readjusted himself in the seat, surprisingly difficult to do, given the G-force, but he didn’t mind; the fixedness waylaid his concerns over the lack of seatbelt. Despite the speed of the pod, he still had, by his reckoning, forty-five minutes of the ‘commute’ left. He felt his eyelids growing heavy as the pod trundled silently on, the yellow lights above him blinking in display of distance accrued. He began to think about the length of the ‘Aspidochelone’. “If only I knew exactly how fast the pod was travelling…”
* * *
“You know, statistically, Dad, these cars emit more pollutants than even the old hybrid-fuel cars; and they’re less economical than the old electric ones”
“Oh, shut up with your ‘statistics’, bonehead”
“You shut up, you little idiot. Just ‘cos you don’t know what statistics are”
“Can you two stop fighting back there?!”
“She started it, mum. She called me a bonehead”
“You are a bonehead… bony little head”
“Both of you shut up”. Dad’s authoritative voice. A pause. “And besides, Jan, this car produces absolutely zero emissions”
“That’s the thing dad, it does. In the long term the effects of ‘nu-steam’ could be devastating. Already we’re beginning to see severe water depletion in many…”
Jan cringes at the memory of his younger self and his earnest speech, learnt verbatim. He is looking down on the scene. A dream. Vivid. A memory. An act of remembrance. The other Jan is fifteen. It’s the first week of the summer holidays. The weather is humid and hot, and ominous black clouds are following the car. Another storm to come this evening, book-ending another oppressively hot summer day.
They are travelling in dad’s new car – a nu-steam – state of the art. A company car. They’re making their annual pilgrimage to Buddle Bay on the North Northumberland coast, where Jan’s dad grew up. Jan has been coming here every year of his life; it’s still his favourite place in the world, though he hasn’t seen many. Jan is clinging to the persona of ‘radical’, intellectual, thinker, that he thinks he should have adopted, having been sent to a ‘prestigious public school’. He’s deliberately filled the middle seat between him and his younger sister with a pile of forebodingly thick (and spectacularly dry) books “to read on the journey”. He’s read a page-and-a-half of one of them. He had to stop. He felt car-sick. He’s trying to impress his dad. Even the young Jan in the car knows that; the Jan at a distance, replaying the scene involuntarily winces in embarrassment. The books, the radical politics, the environmental concern. This is what dad expects. Jan knows in a few hours, when they run out on to the always-deserted beach and he tumbles down those sand dunes, that this newly acquired persona will be shrugged off and blown away in this hyperborean paradise. But for now, enclosed in blistering hot car, he’s the socially conscious young prodigy.
“Well I heard they’re working on a car that runs on sea-water”
“Mum!” with faux-exasperation “it’s not going to run on sea water; they treat the sea water, then use that in the cars nuclear engine. But what they don’t tell you is that the process kills the water”. His own theories built in.
“Kills the water!” scoffs Jan’s little sister, Claire. She knows exactly which buttons to press to rile him.
“Shut up, it does. And anyway, where do they store the contaminated water? Where do we store the extracted salt? Look; Professor Isaac Pitts says that…”
“Oh! Professor Isaac Pitts!” Claire has got a stylised impersonation of Jan’s academic persona down to a finely sharpened point. A devastating weapon. The old Jan smiles. The young Jan is incensed, rises to the bait. He leans over the pretentious mountain of books and lands a fist on skinny thigh, between knee and hem of holiday shorts. A piercing yelp. Revenge is momentarily sweet. Jan deflects the retaliatory blow. Books are strewn over the middle seat and foot well.
“Will you two stop it?!”
“He started it” through sobs.
“Well you can both stop it now. Honestly, you’re away from each other for months at a time, and you’re at each other’s throats within minutes. Now be quiet.”
Silence. Jan picks up a book and pretends to read. He catches Claire’s eye. She gives him a well rehearsed ‘evil’ stare. He turns back to look out the window.
The car powers to the crest of a hill. Jan has actually been reading. Professor Pitts on the dangers of nu-steam. He’s memorising sentences and statistics for future arguments. Arguments he will have to instigate.
“Ooh look!” his mum coos with genuine surprise and delight “I can see the sea!”
Between tempestuous ocean and angry sky are housed legion wind turbines; each proud pillar braced against the wind, their blades a blur. The wind farm stretches out as far along the coast as Jan can see in both directions, a mile out from the shore. Though effectively obsolete now – antiquated even in this white-hot epoch of energy technology – they stand as an immovable testament, a grandiose
monument, to the time when “Something Had To Be Done”. The voyeur Jan smiles at the fact that his mum would have looked past beyond/ past/ through this imposing forest and seen the sea.
I can see the sea. I can see the sea. I can see the sea. I can see the sea.
* * *
The musical lilt of his mother’s voice bled over from dream into reality as Jan opened bewildered eyes. As he looked around the pod, allowing the oppressive present to wash over him once more and usurp remembrance, the spectral voice rang out as clearly as if it were coming from within the pod. “I haven’t seen the sea for… twenty years”, said Jan, out loud to no-one, and the spectre was silenced.
Jan examined the display above the window; the realisation that he has missed his stop gradually dawned upon him. Though it had become something of a regular occurrence on the return trip from lab to ‘home’ for Jan to awake at the ‘end of the line’, sometimes having slept for hours in the uncomfortable bucket seat of the transport pod, he had never done so on the outward bound journey, and a feeling of disquiet seeped in to replace the retracting expanse of confusion. He looked above him to the solace of the aesthetically pleasing schematic display. All forty-eight lights were blinking with measured, unison heartbeats; but they were not alone. For immediately to the left of what Jan had previously considered to be the final light in the display, a heretofore unseen light flashing furiously with a deep, liquid crimson colour. Through the clearing fog, the first thought that sprouted into consciousness for Jan was how expertly this novel red complimented the old friends of yellow and blue; how exciting it was to have a third addition to the palette. The second thought was more quizzical; “what does this light mean?” Jan leaned forward and, squinting into the reflective glass surface, trying to look past the funhouse mirror distortion of his own squinting face, he realised that there were actually three other small, un-illuminated, circles of the darkest red to the left of this newly discovered crimson light, imperceptible from his usual vantage point, only barely detectable with nose almost touching the display. Instinct told Jan that these were stops along the transport pod’s route. Instinct also told him that the red light meant they were, somehow, prohibited to him, but this last was worth testing empirically. He pressed the armrest button with defiant vigour. The usual reassuring clunk of compliance was cut violently short by a resounding grinding of two unseen mechanisms in opposition. The propulsion force gave way, and the pod remained stationary. Startled by the distinctly ‘unhealthy’ sounding noise, Jan clambered ungracefully from the pod and walked stiffly across the corridor to the identical transport alcove on the other side of the corridor. He pressed the yellow call button, thoughts of intriguing forbidden territory already dissolving in the overriding confusion of unwarranted sleep and unwanted dreams. With a whine and rumble, the pod arrived, taking him to the laboratory.
By the time Jan had reached the lab, all fear, confusion, suspicion, anger and thoughts of the four illicit crimson stations had melted into only a mild perturbation at having fallen asleep and missed his ‘stop’. “Foolish old man, falling asleep an hour after you have woken up” he muttered to himself.
Jan placed his thumb in the small indentation above the door handle. With a small clicking noise, the door slid open. Groping inside the pitch black room, Jan switched on the natural light, turning the dial two-thirds of a full circle to the right. A bright summer’s mid-morning. Fresh, radiant sunlight, promising a languid afternoon that, in this otherwise sterile environment would not come. The ambient-effect light flooded in from three rectangular panels, one on each of the walls not running along the corridor. Immediately in front of him was the perfunctory work bench, three metres in length of thick carbon fibre work surface in brilliant, clinical white. Atop this desk sat a number of cluttered and disorganised accoutrement of Jan’s haphazard experimentations. Behind the desk, a long, enclosed shelving unit, running from floor to ceiling and the full length of the back wall. This shelving unit, giving nothing of its contents away behind similarly imposing thick carbon fibre, continued around onto the left hand side wall. The right housed a number of impressive technological devices, many of which Jan had, as yet, not had cause to use. Central among these assorted goods was the monolithic body of the nanoscope; a hulking great mass that revealed none of its inner intricacies from its brushed chrome exterior. The nanoscope body was connected to a large display screen built into the surface of the work bench. All in all the room would be fairly depressing in its functional design. However, the few little perks Jan had insisted upon in the construction of this space helped turn it into an almost humane environment for working; the natural light windows of course, the plants, and Jan’s threadbare leather Chesterfield armchair.
The negotiations Jan had had concerning the plants had reached something of an unsatisfactory compromised. Instead of delicate orchids or pungent bouquets of flowers, Jan had been lumbered with the most practical of plants, selected for their potential scientific importance; soya bean plants, corn, even a small rubber tree. “How ironic it would be”, Jan thought, “if this new water is fine for producing soya beans, but destroys all flowers! That would teach them for not letting me bring at least a buddleia”.
Oh, a buddleia! Just the thought of the smell of buddleia thrust Jan’s malleable mind back to one of the stiflingly hot days of his mid-twenties, the government’s ‘Emergency Water Restriction Act’ already creeping into its fourth unrelenting year. He had taken a walk along the Isis in Oxford – now little more than a stream; not the majestic river of the romantic poets – further out into the blistering countryside that he had ever been before. The sweat was pouring from him as he came across a tumbledown house. From both windows and roof was sprouting a sizable buddleia; it’s long purple flower heads filling the thick air with a strong honeyed perfume. Jan has sat on a pile of rubble in the shade – half asleep, half dehydrated – and spent the entire afternoon breathing in the intoxicating scent and listening to the buzz of insects finding sanctuary in the plant. It had been dark by the time he returned to halls…
* * *
Jan shook himself awake for the second time that day. He found himself nestled in the leather Chesterfield armchair, wrapped in the comfort of its worn, deep-green leather. He didn’t recall sitting down. For a moment, he didn’t recall where he was. Oxford? The chair felt familiar, but the clinical white surroundings did not. A sudden pang of fear hit him in the stomach. It was as though a dam wall, under pressure since the elongated transport pod journey, had suddenly burst and fear was cascading, fountain like, into the pit of his belly.
His head spun; he felt breathless. Legs and arms felt hot and heavy; pins and needles swimming from toes to groin and from armpits to fingers.
The ever-shrinking voice of reason, fighting its way through the blanket of panic being flung across Jan’s mind begged him “think. This is only a feeling. You are not dying. It will pass. Start with the basics. Who are you? You know that.”
“Jan Caragee”. Did he say it out loud? He was gasping for breath and his tongue and teeth fizzed; rippling with electricity. “Jan Caragee. Professor Jan Caragee.”
“Good.” A reassuring voice; coming from within, but not his own. Who’s voice? Not his own. Soothing. Familiar. Pushing back the tide of nausea. “And what do you do, Professor Jan Caragee?”
“Water”. The one-word safety valve released as memory of the here-and-now washed back over him “I’m here to…. As a scientist… I’m here in deep space…. Oh, thank God… to collect water from… and analyse it… check its suitability.” Jan felt the fear gushing out of him. Already the mild embarrassment was beginning to usurp the blind terror. Completing the process, he said to this other voice inside his head, mouthing the words silently in the real world “Professor Jan Caragee of the United North American Federation space vessel ‘Aspidochelone’. Mission: to retrieve and examine water samples from the planet of liquid water Chione 91168”. He rushed to the toilet.
* * *
The nauseatingly sweet chemical cocktail from the toilet flush acted as a final smelling salt to Jan; firmly and resolutely planting him back in the present; a location which, whilst sitting on the toilet, he had made a pact with himself (or was it with the soothing other voice in his head?) to remain for the rest of the day, and for as much of the rest of the mission as possible; if he was stuck in this present for the next six months without hope of change, then he would have to resolutely stick to remaining mentally in this present, or else return a lunatic.
Sheepishly, he meandered back into the lab, averting his eyes from the Chesterfield armchair; the scene of this most recent panic attack and the object that had, this time, taken on the role of disapproving spectator to which Jas felt apologetic and from which exuded Jan’s source of embarrassment. It had been other objects on this excursion which had assumed the role of externalised judge; the mustard-yellow sign for the transport pod when he had become lost in the unending corridor, a particularly pompous ear of corn, once – to his chagrin – the Ersatzrain™ machine when he had begun crying in its soothing waters for no apparent reason. He hadn’t been able to use it for a week afterwards.
He went to the desk and arranged a few papers, trying to think of something constructive to do. He had a plethora of paraphernalia – a significant amount of which lay strewn across the work-bench – bottles, beakers, jugs, decanters, carafes, containers, glass, steel, aluminium, plastic, all of varying sizes, all empty, all dry. He even had a half-litre beaker made of solid gold. He hadn’t needed it. He hadn’t even wanted it. But when the officious, bejewelled general, had, with a mixture of disdain and aloof bluster, told him to provide a comprehensive inventory to stock the lab with everything he may need for the mission, claiming that the UNAF governmental department of environmental replenishment would write a blank cheque to cover the cost, he had felt that he had to put something ostentatious on the list, firstly to agitate the odious general, but also to test the assertion that money really was no object. Looking back at it from his current unfathomable surroundings, he scoffed at the parochiality of his own imagination. A gold beaker on a space ship; truly a drop in the ocean.
Of course, there was one item on his inventory which, though necessary, had cost more than double the rest of the list, was more valuable – in all senses of the word – than Jan could contemplate. It was to this resource that Jan turned, more to validate his own authority in the wake of earlier frailty than for any necessary or pertinent experiment.
Jan walked purposefully to the refrigeration unit in the far corner of the lab, avoiding the judgemental glare of the armchair, which still seemed to be silently judging his movements. With a solemnity, he tapped in the six digit access code into the small lock (he had had to write the number on the top of the refrigeration unit, defeating the purpose of the security measure, but seeing as he was the only conscious person in ten million miles, he could afford to be slightly lackadaisical over security). The door opened, and his arms and chest were bathed in a chilling, lunar yellow light. Ceremoniously, he reached inside and clasped both hands firmly around the one-and-a-half litre bottle of uncontaminated Earth water.
He needed both hands to carry the frosted grey plastic bottle, not only to display the gravitas of the moment to the armchair, but also because of sheer necessity. Despite its modest size, the bottle was deceptively heavy. When he had submitted his request (originally for two litres of pure water; perhaps the seemingly limitless cavern of wealth did have a boundary) to the general, it had never crossed Jan’s mind that it would require a particularly special vessel. But it had. Government research and development had spent almost as much on designing the bottle as they did on the water inside, designing a bottle that could not – under any circumstances (he had been forcibly reassured) be made to unintentionally relieve itself of its near-sacred contents.
Of the water itself, Jan had been told very little, though an educated guess told him it probably came from one of the South American Conglomerate water resources. Most likely, it was from the barricaded ‘Complejo Titicaca’ in the Andean Conglomerate. The heavily fortified zone – allegedly once a lake – had turned the Andean Conglomerate into one of the richest, and most war-torn, nations on Earth, and their government were usually desperate to sell off some of their liquid family silver (though not so desperate that they couldn’t still charge an exorbitant price) for advances in ‘defence capabilities.’ The water couldn’t have been sourced from within the UNAF. Even the most remote lakes in the UNAF could now only realistically claim to be 50% pure.
Jan hesitantly positioned the bottle above a non-descript glass beaker. He felt the strain beginning to build in his forearms, and another pang of nervous excitement began to flood his chest. He placed his left thumb into the small indent on the side of the bottle. The sensor recognised the authority of Jan’s fingerprint (his eyes flicked to the Chesterfield armchair; “See?”) and with a sound of pressurised air escaping, the top opened and the virginal liquid flowed with constrained elegance into the waiting receptacle. Almost as soon as it began, Jan, through sheer nervousness, pulled his thumb away from the sensor. Immediately, the bottle top closed. An in-built safety measure meant that it would be an hour before Jan could open it again. On the desk in front of him sat the unassuming beaker with an inch and a half of water in it. More expensive than Jan’s life-time earnings ten times over. More valuable to Earth than any and all faddish minerals or stones it had every previously coveted.
Momentarily, Jan was transfixed by the almost arrogantly subdued beauty of the water; the still burgeoning, though never blossoming, bright mid-morning light shimmering and dancing upon its surface, vibrating slightly with the perennial rumble of the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ engines. He was suddenly overcome by a compulsion to drink the contents; to swill it around his mouth, to imbibe every last molecule, wait an hour with thumb pressed to the bottle’s sensor and drain down the rest of liquid into his open throat. The thought of such a wanton act thrilled and horrified him in equal measure, and he squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to physically push the idea from his mind.
Carefully, he returned the bottle to its centrifugal harness inside the refrigeration unit and, with much less ceremony, removed the only other item; a similar sized, though noticeably less prestigious bottle. It was jet-black, had a twistable nozzle to release its unseen contents, and was marked with the label “Chione 91168: Sample #86b: 04/19/2284 (Surface Ice)”
Jan drew an identical beaker alongside the now sacred chalice and poured an equal measure from this new bottle. The litany with which he conducted these precise movements reminded him of a particularly fastidious priest, and, replacing the bottle in the fridge, he stood back and stared at the twin beakers.
“Could I tell them apart?” Jan thought to himself. “If I didn’t know which was which, if someone swapped them around, could I tell which came from a fortified ex-lake on Earth and which was hacked by a mechanical probe from the husk of a colossal asteroid of pure water languidly traversing the vacuum of deep space at the far reaches of our solar system?” a sudden wave of nausea and a ripple of static emanating from the back of his head and coalescing around his temples, another bout of fear was threatening, not yet fully shaken off from earlier. “Which one is which? Which one is ours? Maybe both will be ours, once this mission is over.” “
“Right. The right hand side beaker is the Earth water, you are just worrying yourself”. The cool, soothing voice in his head.
Jan was still jittery. He had partially suppressed a ‘Total Fear Meltdown’; his own terminology. He had become accustomed to the sensation since it first presented itself to him as an eleven year old – the night before the entrance exam for private school. Giving it a name had helped the young Jan cope with the momentary dread of these events. The name had stuck throughout his life. He knew now that the ‘Total Fear Meltdown’ would return compounded if he did not forcibly occupy his mind with something else. He felt the Ersatzrain™ machine calling; the white noise, the vibration, the warmth, the closeness to the water; all this would act as a salve to his tender nerves. But he had poured out this water now – the holy water and its estranged, extraterrestrial brother. The thought of wasting even this meagre amount cut through the impending ocean of dread to Jan’s still virile scientific, rational mind; to this part of Jan, the thought was inconceivable.
After a moment more of internal dialogue – the external Jan standing catatonic, staring at the two beakers glistening in the perpetual mid-morning light, the two internal conflicting parties of the obstinate academic and the frightened old man jostling for prominence – an accord was struck; an hour or two of at least ostensibly rigorous experimentation and comparative observation of these two diverse water sources, followed by a lengthy stint in the Ersatzrain™ machine, then to bed with his dog-eared copy of Dr. Clarence DuBois’ seminal ethnographic study on the people of the Salt-Flat cities of the Mexican Gulf, essential reading for the next chapter of his own historical tome. The seed of a witty name came to him, convincing him to push through the anxiety: “In Ever Decreasing Pools: The Political Influence and Geographical Routes of Water, 2100-Present”.
* * *
Jan fed the two prepared slides into the nanoscope, and ambled back over to the monitor on the desk. Blurred at first, the image quickly pulled itself into hyper-real focus. Jan felt himself being pulled into this infinitesimal world where the fantastically small and large seemed to meet; where it was hard to tell whether one was looking at atoms or stars. Jan had spent many an involved hour speculating from deep within this world back in his laboratory in Washington about the circular nature of size; indeed the inherent sameness of all polar opposites, though given the fragility of his current emotional state, remembering the government psychologist’s advice at that secretive training facility in the centre of an unnamed desert, weeks before his ascent to the stars, he thought it best to keep as much of his consciousness in the regular-sized normalcy of the objective present as possible.
He brought his still nimble hand to the screen and began to manipulate the image. With a dextrous series of taps, he zoomed the right hand image in by a factor of one hundred. The picture changed from one of ragged clusters of smooth globes, to one of a singular orb, it’s previously apparent smoothness now revealed to be pock-marked and rough. The view of a single atom. “How many bodies have you inhabited?” thought Jan. “How many tears have you been, how much spit, how much bile? Have you been puddles, rivulets, brooks? Have you been glaciers, waterfalls, oceans? Torrential downpours or life-giving drizzle? So many guises, now torn from home to exist in one, unchanging state; a priceless relic in the vacuum of space.”
Jan repeated the monitor manipulation for the left-hand side image. It too showed a singular sphere, though one that was immaculately smooth, even at this unbearably close scrutiny. It came as no particular surprise to him, though the image was still staggering. He had been testing this water source for some months back in Washington, though never had he been informed of its astral origin. Despite himself, he thought back to that day the first batch of water samples had arrived, under heavy guard, to be met by his baffled group of lab technicians. Such a furore in the lab that day; excitement mixed with confusion, an attempt at indignation from some of the more senior lab workers at being told what to test, but not being told what they were testing was. But still, this quantity of water, wherever it had come from, showed a huge display of faith in Jan’s lab from those in power, and the offer to compile a rigorous report on the quality of the samples could not be turned down.
“If I had know then what I know now about the water’s origin, would I have conducted the report differently?” wondered Jan, in a moot manner, the half-hearted probes into the water samples from Chione 91168 he had conducted aboard the ‘Aspidochelone’ so far had shown nothing that he had not uncovered and revealed in his report back in Washington. He glided through this micro world, first on the right, then on the left, mirroring his actions meticulously on both samples, keeping the Earth sample as an exact control to the potentially deceptive sameness of Chione 91168. Though all tests undertaken on the water had shown it to be benign, Jan could never fully shake that nagging feeling that something would reveal itself; that this miracle source of clean water would turn out to be fatal. This new worry now swam in the stream of Jan’s consciousness; a stream that, as the screen’s images glided further and deeper into the Siamese worlds of water, was veering away from the moment and cascading into the past. Further and deeper. Deeper and deeper.
* * *
It was the unfathomably hot summer of ’72 – made infamous by the horrors of the Indian riots. Jan was carving a respectable academic niche for himself, lecturing at Brasenose College, busying himself with diligent, albeit slightly conservative, journal papers (the red-hot shame of the rejection letter still burning in his mind) and the occasional conference. His book – a published version of his secretive second doctorate – had made something of a splash ‘across the pond’, and he had been invited to give the keynote paper at a conference at John Hopkins University. It was to be the moment when his life veered from the serene, meandering path of academia, and into the frenetic pace of world politics.
He had just finished his rather dry talk on his most recent work on ‘the reconstitutive properties of liquid oxygen on contaminated water’. “A dry talk about water”; it was a joke he often made, almost as a nervous reaction, when meeting people at the execrable (to Jan anyway) post-conference ‘networking’ parties. As he was standing in the corner of one such cluttered room, trying to make his isolated demeanour look deliberate – as though engaged in rapturous conversation with himself – he was approached by a stunningly elegant woman, wearing an almost old-fashioned, though clearly, even to Jan’s untrained eye, incredibly expensive suit. Her purposeful, direct walk towards Jan had thrown him before she had even reached him. When she introduced herself as Maria Cardenas, and as “working for the government”, it was all Jan could do to stammer “the Federation government?”
An almost imperceptible pout was the only sign that this authoritative, intimidatingly good-looking woman had heard Jan’s question, and she continued, as though he hadn’t spoken, to ‘invite’ him, in a manner that similarly would not wait for a response, for an audience at the White House. They had taken the high-speed shuttle train that afternoon.
There had been barely any conversation between the two strangers travelling together. Jan had tried, hesitantly, to instigate some form of conversation, but, having had any attempt to shed light on the nature of the prospective meeting met with stone-wall silence, and any attempt at small talk met by terse, begrudging answers, he had quickly given up hope of conversation, and had succumbed to surreptitiously examining her.
Maria’s hair, raven black and razor sharp, reminded Jan of a piece of obsidian volcanic glass he had been given as a child, the way it shimmered in the oppressive heat, yet appeared as though it were a single, solid entity. Her light brown skin was immaculately smooth, the subtle contour of her chin, curving round into jaw bone led Jan’s eye to the alluring curve of her neck; slender and magnificent. Jan suddenly had a vivid image of kissing an intoxicating cocktail of sweat and perfume from the delicate biconcave structure of her neck. He blushed furiously, though in his already flustered state trapped in this unforgiving heat, it was unnoticeable. Despite the intern fear of being caught staring, Jan found it impossible to avert his eyes from this alluring woman’s splendour. On even closer, though still, Jan prayed, subtle, inspection, he began to see a few creases at the corners of her eyes and mouth and a colony of grey hairs sprouting from her temple. These small details belied the supernatural presence Jan had bestowed upon her the moment he saw her, but infused her with a humanness that only accentuated her beauty. She was maybe only ten years Jan’s junior, but here, staring, straight-backed, out of the
window on this speeding train, a serene confidence about her, she seemed light years away from him. By the end of the short shuttle train journey, Jan Caragee was entirely besotted with the still enigmatic Maria Cardenas.
The meeting at the White House had been, in many respects, anticlimactic, after Maria’s splendid silence, unduly invasive security searches, and prolonged periods of waiting in various different plush corridors. Eventually, Maria had glided, beacon like, back into one corridor where he had been sitting and led him to an impressively stately oak door. Jan still had no inkling as to who to expect on the other side, and Maria evaporated around a corner before he had time to ask her. He had hoped for, and feared, meeting the President, surrounded by shouting generals, important luminaries, decisions and stress. In fact, as the muffled, distracted reply of ‘what? Come in!’ greeted his rather tentative knock, and he entered the room, he saw only one other person in the room. A short and stocky black woman in a cream coloured blouse sat behind a huge mahogany desk which, rather than imbue her with a sense of power, merely accentuated her diminutive stature. The room was dark; lit only by a heavy desk lamp with an emerald green glass shade that offered only an oblong of light to the desk, and little else.
“I apologise for the darkness. The main light is broken. I have been on to the maintenance people all evening to get this fixed” the woman behind the desk said in a tired voice, rubbing her eyes. “Please, take a seat.”
Jan shuffled towards the desk, aware of the rich weft of the carpet; though late evening now, the heat still permeated the room from outside, and the thick carpet felt like a blanket engulfing him, exuding its own heat. He sat down, the woman across the desk staring blankly at him. In the gloom, Jan had to squint across the desk to make out the features on the woman’s round face. Two things stood out. She had short, brown hair slicked back at the hairline, and spiked up at the back. The child in Jan giggled “she looks like a triceratops!” She also had four patches of vitiligo from her left eye down to her chin and submental triangle, each one an irregularly shaped blob, a ring of which with a cherry-pink centre. Jan was thinking they looked pretty, when the woman, now self-consciously stroking the smallest patch by her left eye, said “Doctor Jan Caragee?” in a slow, agitated voice. Jan suddenly realised how tired and confused he was, and so with thinly veiled agitation of his own replied “actually, it’s professor Caragee. I was appointed chair of experimental nanoscopy at Brasenose this past term.” Jan usually baulked at this sort of academic name dropping, but it carried an undue amount of gravitas in the UNAF. “Would you mind telling me exactly who you are and what I’m doing here, in either order!” The woman’s demeanour changed, and with another long rub of her eyes and a quick rifle through a large stack of papers to her right, said “professor; my apologies. I realise you have been waiting a long time; it’s been one of those days. My name is Rose Collins, head of the Department for Environmental Replenishment.”
In the protracted meeting, Jan had met several members of the department, had been told, numerous times, how his book had informed many of the great thinkers in the current administration and their policies and strategies in dealing with the most recent flair up in the “Water Wars” within and between the Latin American Conglomerate Nations. “It can’t have informed you that closely” Jan kept thinking to himself. “If you knew anything about my subsequent work, you would know I have heavily criticised the use of the epithet ‘Water Wars’ and have been vocal in opposing the UNAF policy in the South”. He wished he had the nerve to say so to one of the faceless carousel of besuited officials, but for the most part, ha had nodded in silence as compliments were thrown and decision were made around him. At the end of this maelstrom of words, Jan was offered a “purely hypothetical at this stage” position as head of a “blue-sky, experimental laboratory here hi Washington”, conducting experiments upon “a series of exciting new water sources.” The prospect of having actual water with which to work – a scarce commodity, even in the prestigious Oxford University labs – intrigued Jan, but it had been the re-emergence of Maria Cardenas, slinking noiselessly into the room, still looking radiant even at this ungodly hour, that had convinced Jan to say yes. Apparently Rose Collins had been sure he would agree, the job, it seems, was not so much offered to Jan as he was informed he would be undertaking it. The department had already organised a modest apartment for him in a high-rise monolith on the outskirts of Washington, and already informed Brasenose College of his immediate departure.
* * *
Jan looked down at rose’s desk. With a blink, the solid mahogany morphed into clinical white carbon fibre, sultry night and dim lamp light was replaced by cool, air-conditioned air and artificial morning sunlight, the archaic paper contract Jan had been handed (by Maria; her long, elegant fingers, the merest hint of blue-ridge veins, delicate pink cuticles, immaculate white arcs capping each precisely) to sign was replaced by the display screen of the nanoscope, though he no longer recognised or could contextualise the bizarre image it showed.
He wrestled to locate his contemporary self for a moment, massaging his short-term memory back into action. As his mental picture began to focus back in, he saw something flickering in the display screen. Squinting, and waylaying the fear of another uncalled memory trigger in the face of sheer curiosity, he manipulated the controls at the side of the screen, trying to get a better definition on this iridescent point of interest as he did, with a flash of blue-silver, the minute object glistened and shot diagonally from the bottom right to the top left across the left hand side of the screen; the Chione sample screen. Perplexed, Jan followed the movement of the silver light, wrenching the glare of the nanoscope light years or attometres – at this magnitude, closer that Jan had ever delved, his finger unknowingly pressed on the zoom button as his mind had faded from ‘now’ into ‘then’, the distinction was moot – in the same direction. After a moment’s uneventful and frantic search, the fleck of luminescence came back into the picture – appeared back in the picture – resting just to the right of centre. Jan slowly zoomed in even closer.
With an audibly cry, he lurched backwards, sending the beakers and their near-sacred contents cascading to the floor. Jan’s vision darkened and a hollow ringing invaded his senses. He suddenly felt as though he were encased in treacle; viscous and opaque. His knees gave way and he dropped to the floor hard and heavy, exhaling forcibly as his ribcage impacting with the ever-vibrating floor. He passed into unconsciousness.
Unbeknownst to Jan, the two disparate genera of water, once separated by millions of miles of cold, indifferent space, met for the first time and coalesced on the floor of the ‘Aspidochelone’.
Reluctantly, Jan turned off the Ersatzrain™ machine, dried himself, put on his plum coloured towelling dressing gown – initially another incongruous ‘space suit’, this one had become more of a security blanket over the last three days of constant wear – and walked quickly to the only other sanctuary of his bed, littered with books.
Nestled in the covers, Jan cast a momentary glance at the slate-black door and shivered. The very thought of stepping outside into the unending indifference of the corridor was still anathema to him. The thought of the laboratory – its smashed glass and squandered pools of united water – was still literally unthinkable to Jan; it lingered as an ominous black cloud at the very back of his conscious mind, controlling his skittish delicacy, demanding attention and reconciliation at the revelation uncovered in the alien water. At some point. But not now. Now was for the familiar world of the bed and literature and prolonged visits to the Ersatzrain™ machine; it was all Jan could do; live in the present, ignore the past, keep at bay frightening reality.
It had been three days since Jan had woken up in on the trembling floor of the lab, still bathed in never-changing sunlight. How he had gotten back to the room was still a blank, as were the following two days, in which Jan had slept as much as possible. Today, however, something was beginning to shift in his mental state; the beginnings of a sea-change, a reintroduction of scientific mettle, and voracious curiosity at the vision of the waters of Chione 91168. Today, he resolved to make a concerted effort to begin to rebuild, to retrace his steps; fill in the blanks in his memory.
The starting point, one he had to confront, was that the events in the lab three days ago had precipitated the onset of the biggest ‘Fear Meltdown’ since his childhood, and though the near-constant sleep of the first two days afterwards had been punctuated by the abstract fear of this colossal unknown, he now felt the inkling of an almost comforting desire to understand, to analyse, to study. However, he know that before he could even attempt to study the awaiting image on the nanoscope, before he could even contemplate leaving the room, he would have to put his own mental house in order. He would have to probe the still fragile archives of his recent memory, treading carefully in case of provoking any raw areas, and endangering himself to further panic attacks; a distinct possibility, but the nettle must now be grasped.
He took a ‘Deep Breath’ – more childhood jargon; a breathing technique designed to calm – and, with his trusty dual safety nets – DuBois’ ethnography of the Salt-Flat Cities and Isaac Pitt’s collected essays ‘On Water’ – positioned in the well formed by his crossed legs, he endeavoured to begin to piece together the cause of this most recent ‘Meltdown’.
* * *
“Begin.” A bead of cold sweat. Eyes closed. A nausea in the pit of the stomach, pushed down, condensing, distilling. “Begin”, with force.
“Ok. I was in the lab. I thought about buddleia. The smell. The smell in the heat, by the Isis in Oxford. I was sitting in the Chesterfield and…” Heart beating like a piston. Dizzy, Jan reached for a book; began reading at random.
* * *
… the largest of the Salt-Flat cities. It is a distinctly ramshackle place; an assault to the five senses, that seems to revel in its stateless, nationless, and thoroughly multicultural identity. “El Callejero”, with a population of over one million – precise figures are, of course, impossible to come by – comprising, in surprisingly equal measures citizens from the former country of Mexico (predominantly from the former coastline of Yucatan, (see Perez, 2182, Decourt, 2187b, Green and Haelstroem, 2201) now home of the dividing wall between UNAF and the Salt-Flat) Cubans – the wall partitioning the Salt-Flat from the Caribbean sea passing only some thirty miles from the northern tip of Cuba, citizens from the former nation of Haiti who, following the “absolute collapse of… [that nation’s] infrastructure” (Strang, 2163:213) and subsequent annexing by the UNAF in 2150, found themselves effectively “without a country to call home” (ibid.), and migrants, dissidents and exiles from the South American Conglomerate Nations; victims all, despite their various epithets, of the so-called ‘water diaspora’. There is, of course, a growing and now not insignificant population of former UNAF citizens – draconian UNAF law still immediately revokes the citizenship of any UNAF citizen on setting foot upon the Salt-Flat – many of whom feel
disenfranchised; both from their former home and from the otherwise unified Salt-Flat communities. These issues will be address further in chapter ten.
However, despite the negative portrayal of ‘El Callejero’ that permeates much of the UNAF media; the supposed lawlessness, criminality and chaos, I have found it to be a city with just as present and defined quotidian and collective identity as any other. It functions. And that it functions, as all its multifarious citizens attest, is because a space outside of global conservation strategy, and the perceived hypocrisy of individual austerity and sacrifice is necessary; a space where the ‘other’ can exist; a sub-culture, purportedly, of abandon, generosity, and sociability is demanded, even in discourses from ‘within’ the global village. Indeed, this book will suggest, it is the very presence of such a ‘space of otherness’ which allows the ‘space for us’ to exist.
Yet to portray this complex, liminal, space as an enclosed utopia – as the polar opposite from the nation it borders (albeit from behind the largest and longest wall constructed in human history) – it to deny its citizens their identity as citizens of the globe; after all, they do not live on a separate planet. In this sense, they are not ‘alien’. This ethnographic account attempts to steer away from the discourse of many more radical writers who have either portrayed the Salt-Flats as either the last vestiges of true humanity (Karlz, 2186, 2189, Smith, 2194), or as the death-throes of humanity’s now-vanquished disease of wastefulness and squander (Ingursson, 2160, Dole, 2182). Such polemic discourses attempt to forge an unbridgeable schism, particularly between the Salt-Flats and the UNAF, into what has been over sixty years of constant dialogue and shifting self-identifications from both sides of the wall…
* * *
Jan closed his eyes, took another ‘Deep Breath’ and shut the book. The soothing effect of the familiar words had had the desired effect; he felt ready to continue to remember. “I was in the chair… the Chesterfield. I was remembering… but I didn’t want to. It came on itself. Memories taking over. I woke up confused. I felt… a ‘Meltdown’ coming on… but it stopped. I stopped it.”
“Good. How did you stop it?” It was Jan’s voice, but different. Calm. In control. Talking to himself, as though he were another person. Soothing. “Concentrate. How did you stop it?”
“Work. I thought about work. Water. I was going to do some experiments on the water. I got the Earth water… poured it out. Then… I got the water from… the planet… from Chione… the” Sweating. Cramped legs, waves of pins and needles in a tempestuous ocean of fear. Gasps of air. Shallow. Blindly, Jan groped for a book, turned to a page at random.
* * *
… that we would have learned our lesson. Our forbears suffered a presciently similar set of circumstances; those that engulfed the globe in the early decades of the last century: the end of oil production.
Now it seems like a histrionic overreaction from a bygone era, doesn’t it? The so-called age when ‘Something Had To Be Done’, piling the scant remaining resources of nations into environmentally friendly energy sources, the rolling blackouts across the globe, the violence in the Middle East and China, the massive famines; all exercises in shutting the gate after the horse had bolted!
At the time many academics similar to me now, I suppose, were greeted as harbingers of doom; as though they carried a sandwich board with the words ‘the end is nigh’ written upon them. In fact, they were correct, the end, in many senses was nigh – and we are living in that endgame now. It was not by accident that the larger corporations with a vested interest in oil production managed to come up with an eleventh-hour solution to the crisis just as the last oil well ran dry. However their miraculous solution of using first fresh, now salt, water to power miniature nuclear reactors sets a dangerous and, as yet unknown, precedent.
Not only are we living now in an almost pathological repetition of the past – replacing once scarce liquid for another – we are in the even more precarious position using our final ‘get out of jail free card’. Oil was not essential to life on this planet; but our more recent commodified liquid – the infinitely more precious water – is. There will, I fear, be nowhere to turn once….
* * *
Eyes shut. Veins bulging with the ebb and flow of viscous blood. The words barely penetrating.
“Push on. Push through. You must.” The ‘other Jan’ becoming more forceful now. Jan himself desperate to curtail the experiment into his own memories. But unable. “It was the water from Chione. Take it step by step.”
“I… poured them both out… the same… I couldn’t really think of anything to do with them… I … just wanted to … see the water; let it out, look at it.”
Jan pulled the covers over his head, tears now streaming from his eyes. He felt as though some external, unseen force was pushing slowly upon every square inch of his body – external and internal – at once. He breathing had become ragged and accelerated. His heart fluttering to keep pace with itself. He brought his knees up to his chest, and the two books in the reservoir of his lap fell to the ground. Reaching out an arm from the safety of the newly constructed cave of cloth, he picked one up and pulled it in. allowing a shard of light to enter around his stomach, he began to read. DuBois. Old friend.
* * *
… kept secret from the population, the proposed excision of the Gulf of Mexico waters from the main body of the Caribbean sea had been mooted for several decades as a way to supply the then independent nation of the United States of America with a manageable (and defendable) body of water, both as fuel and for drinking. However, the reality of the geographical situation meant that no realistic talks could take place without at least a nominal presence from the former nation of Mexico. Indeed, as political historian Gregory Fensome has suggested that “the clandestine talks between the two formerly separate nations [of the USA and Mexico] about this controversial project was to signal the beginning of conglomeration negotiations; a policy the USA had formerly been vehemently opposed to, in the face of South American conglomeration policies” (2212:138).
The joint venture of the Gulf annex, began officially by the two separate nations on the 21st of March, 2156 (The former nation of Canada joining officially in the project in 2159), though many suspect that deep-sea surveying, and possibly even foundational construction may have begun long before this official date (Fensome, ibid.:146). Workers set out from the Florida Keys and the city of Cancún respectively, with a Canadian team liaising between the two teams from 1959. that the entire dam wall only took five-and-a-half years to build was heralded as a “testament to the benefits of close companionship in this time of need between the North American nations” (President Lamb, State of the Union Address, 2162), and legislature that gradually began to bind the three nations together began to appear later in the same year. However, what the rapidity of this project demonstrated most pointedly was the sheer desperation of all three nations (Canada to a slightly lesser extent, due to it’s as-yet uncontaminated lakes) for relatively clean, albeit salt, water for human consumption….
…Water purification plants were set up in the cities of Mobile, Corpus Christi, Tampico and Campeche. Either ironically or deliberately, the central headquarters for the newly names ‘Gulf Lake’ was situated in a city called ‘Clearwater’, on what used to be the Miami peninsular. These factories treated thousands of gallons of desperately needed water every day to help quench the rapacious thirst of the burgeoning Federation. However, they also poured tonnes of salt back into the newly acquired lake…
* * *
The nausea subsided with the familiar text; words read and re-read. “Reliable DuBois”. Facts. Calming and known; the world of never-changing certainly. Jan wished for a moment he were strolling down the parched ‘avenidas’ of ‘El Callejero’; eating a alt-preserved fried fish, dug up from the very salt-flat itself. He had never been to the Salt-Flat. He knew he never would. Facts. Even the negative, prohibiting ones were strangely calming.
“Don’t stray from the topic! Something was different. With the water. Remember!” The voice. Insistent now. Desperate. Every synapse in Jan’s brain was resisting its provocation; all except the small corner harbouring this dissident other voice. Jan groaned and clutched his stomach. The benign rumble of the ship’s engines was not a roaring torrent; invading all senses, bed shaking as though in an earthquake, vision blurred, ears in agony at the noise. “What was different?!” the voice pleaded.
“I looked at them… through the nanoscope… everything was fine… normal… they were the same… same as always.”
“Then what? No more stalling!” an aggression in the voice now; venom. An eddy in the still water.
“Then I started remembering… her… remembering Maria… I didn’t want to… but she came to me.” The name alone gave him strength. “And when I… what? Woke up… I suppose… when I woke up, something was… oh, god… It was… a flash… and… and”
Head swirling now as images flashed across his eyes, stabling into view, being flushed away as soon as they pulled into focus. The howl of the engines continued, increased to an almost tangible volume. A violent, violet corona shimmered around everything, tracing lines around Jan’s vision. Everything was liquid, in perpetual motion. With no hope of consolation, Jan picked up a book.
* * *
…The power to decide the future of this nation… a decision of the entire…
…brinksmanship. But this time, we may again be past the brink… the precipice of self-delusion… water on this planet.
… nowhere near far enough to sustain… seven whole planets…. unsustainable…. Riots…
…just the beginning…
* * *
Even Pitts – dear, sagely old Isaac Pitts and his salient words failed in their apportioned task to calm and collect. Nothing could save Jan now. This was a ‘Total Fear Meltdown’ on another scale. He was seeing double, though neither vision offered much information to Jan’s addled brain to contextualise what was happening. His eyes pulsated, head throbbed, throat taut and rasping. A violent cataclysm was upon Jan. Self-inflicted. Self-directed. Deliberate. But now entirely out of hand.
“All this will pass,” the voice tried to say, but it was being engulfed – drowned – in wave after tidal wave of static pounding against the granite of Jan’s rational mind.
“I met him once” said Jan, whispered Jan, thought Jan, bellowed Jan. he could no longer tell the inner from the outer world; his eyes wild and dilated, the room around him livid in colour; both blurred and violently sharp. The corona of indigo had grown to engulf all but the very centre of his vision, and had obtained its own halo of brilliant white, bleaching Jan’s peripheral vision. “Professor Pitts. I met him.”
Suddenly, the voice came again, though as if whispered in his ear from outside himself. “You know what you saw. Say it. Think it. Unlock it.”
Jan could only stare straight ahead; no difference between closing and opening eyes now, the same vibration of indigo and white poured down around him. The back wall and the door to the Ersatzrain™ room was a hazily defined mass, pulsating back and forth, ripping itself apart and reforming in front of him. The roaring ocean of blood crashing against eardrums cut away instantly.
“I had my finger on the screen… zooming… whilst the thought of Maria was with me.”
“Don’t think about her now. Think of the screen. The water.”
“Her neck, her melodic authority. That smile… elusive.”
“THE WATER!” the voice screamed.
“It had magnified… kept magnifying… the water from Chione… a hundred times more… a thousand… I don’t know… I didn’t recognise… what I saw… though it was a mistake… but then… a flash… silver.” Jan felt a cold stream run from nostril to mouth, and a sweet, metallic taste on his lips. He drew his hand to his mouth, and it came back crimson. His vision tunnelled; from bleached out to black.
“One last push; then you can sleep,” the voice whispered. “Say it. Tell me what you saw.”
“I saw something…. I saw it move… in the water… something moving… alive. Life. Life. Life. In the water…
“Professor Jan Caragee. Professor Jan Caragee. Please report to the nearest message retrieval unit; urgent message waiting.”
“Professor Jan Caragee. Professor Jan Caragee. Please report to the nearest message retrieval unit; urgent message waiting.”
* * *
Jan’s in his lab back in Washington. It’s night. Bather in an orange glow from the streetlight. He’s doing something, but he can’t see what. He hears footsteps. High heels. Someone else is in the lab at this ungodly hour. He looks up. A shape. A face. Maria. Maria walking slowly towards him, unbuttoning a cool, cream coloured blouse.
* * *
“Professor Jan Caragee. Professor Jan Caragee. Please report to the nearest message retrieval unit; urgent message waiting.”
* * *
Jan is kneeling on a chair in his kitchen, his mum’s arm around his shoulder. He looks over to the corner of the room to see Matthew Inkpen standing with his arms folded across bright yellow t-shirt; a furious look on scrunched up small features under jet black curls. Jan’s mum has just told off Matthew Inkpen – made him stand in the corner – for trying to blow out the candles on Jan’s birthday cake. “It’s Jan’s special day,” she says, and Matthew Inkpen’s face crumples. Jan is feeling important and powerful. On the chair, above the crowd of up-turned faces. He blows out the candles, and the rest of the children cheer. Jan casts a victorious look at his vanquished foe. A tear is rolling down Matthew Inkpen’s chubby cheek.
* * *
“Professor Jan Caragee. Professor Jan Caragee. Please report to the nearest…”
* * *
Jan is outside, in one of the anonymous legion of quads. He’s at a fresher’s party. He’s been at Oxford a week, and has spent most of it confused, intimidated and alone. He lights a cigarette. He’s decided he’s going to try smoking. So far it has just made him feel dizzy and sick. In the cooling moonlight, a girl comes staggering towards him in a tight black dress. A burst of excitement. But she’s drunk. Too drunk. Missing a high heel shoe. She’s been crying. Black mascara cascading down cheeks; saliva shimmering in the moonlight. “how do you get out of this fucking garden?!” she wails at Jan. “I’m trying – sob – to get out – sob – of this fucking – sob – garden – sob – but the gate is – sob –– sob – the gate is fucking locked!”
With a sigh, Jan sticks his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and fumbles in his pocket for a moment to find the electronic key fob. The smoke irritates his eye, but he thinks he must look cool. But the girl is looking down at the ground, swaying gently and mellifluously sobbing and swearing. He strolls over to the heavy wrought iron gate, the girl staggering and sniffing behind him. He presses the fob to the dark shape to the side of the gate, and it opens noiselessly.
Without even a thank you, the girl pours herself through the gate. To Jan’s amazement, she clambers onto the seat of a nearby bicycle and weaves away through the deserted streets. Jan turns back to the garden quad; the moonlight playing off the scorched grass, picking out silhouettes of wilted plants. Jan smiles. “Maybe I’m not the only one here who feels hopelessly lost” he thinks.
* * *
“Professor Jan Caragee. Professor Jan Caragee…”
Jan opened one bleary eye. A trembling expanse of silver-grey metal expanded out to a false horizon, where a lighter hue of grey wall took over. A reassuring hum massaged Jan’s temple, pressing hard into the unyielding surface. He had no idea where he was, nor how he got to wherever he was, but the machinal hum felt pleasant against his aching body. Hadn’t he just been at a birthday party? Or in a garden?
“Is someone else here?” though Jan, “someone is speaking.” With great effort he pushed himself up to a sitting position, leg splayed out in front of him, back against the bed. His head throbbed, not painfully, but as strong magnets attracting and repelling each other inside a mass of cotton wool. There was a serene freshness to Jan; like the sky after a torrential storm, clouds parting to allow apricot sunlight through, lighting up a litter of puddles.
He looked around the small, grey room with nothing in. Just a bed, a closed door to his left – an even lighter grey with a mustard yellow beading around the frame. An open archway with the same yellow ribbon framing it directly in front. Somehow all these things looked familiar – certainly not alien. As incongruous and impossible to contextualise as they may have been, Jan was not frightened by this unknown environ; rather he sat in a quite haze and began a process of working out and piecing together these disparate elements; like one of the lateral thinking problems he used to enjoy doing as a boy. He looked down to his legs. A pool of blackened, congealed blood, two heavy leather-bound books standing proud as two vertically-edged islands in this now solid sea. Jan felt his face. Flakes of dried blood traced the contours of his cheek, laugh lines, moustache and chin. Still he sat serenely; more information in the problem.
Suddenly, though not startlingly, his eye caught a glowing blue orb pulsating on the wall on the other side of the room, opposite the door. He became aware once more of the non-corporeal voice repeating ad infinitum around him.
“…message retrieval unit; urgent message waiting.”
“Professor Jan Caragee…”
He felt compelled to examine this slow-flashing circle. With great care and effort, Jan pulled himself to his feet. He felt the magnets in his head lurch to some unseen force, and he clung to the foot of the bed, breathing heavily. Bu the blue orb kept flashing, pulling him, enticing him ever nearer. Tracing the line of the wall…
“…Caragee. Please report to the nearest…”
…with shaking hand, Jan pulled himself…
“…urgent message waiting… Professor…”
…ever nearer to the object of his desire. He stretched out a hand, unsure what to do to engage with it, but feeling instinctually…
““… Jan Caragee. Please…”
… the glowing blue disc needed to be pushed.
The light instantly stopped its benign pulsing. The spectral call for attention cut out. The silence now replacing the previous white noise repetition was arresting; a sense of absence engulfed Jan, and his ears burned with the release. The blue light faded to show a screen, and an image of a flustered looking woman with spiky hair and four patches of cherry-white on the left side of her face flashed up to meet his bloodshot eyes.
“Rose!” gasped Jan, out loud. The single word brought his current reality flooding back down upon him; there was no relief, the state of serene confusion had been, for its brief stay, more preferable. There had been no past, no future, just an unending series of lived moments, each disconnected from the last. Now the lateral thinking puzzle had all the absurd answers filled in, and they were, if not satisfactory, then they served to rob the previously disconnected objects of their curiousness; they were now mundane players in the unstoppable game, as was Jan. Rose was not looking directly out of the screen, rather she was looking past it, above it, to some unseen person behind where her camera must have been. She looked dishevelled, tired and had a distinctly grumpy tone to her clipped, rasping voice. The message began:
“Well I don’t care if he’s feeling sick, alright? We’re all sick, that’s what suspended animation does to you… he is the chief technical officer aboard this vessel… He is responsible for inter-vessel communications… Well he is if I say he is, and I am saying that he is. This would be twenty times easier if he was here helping me… Well I have done, and it’s still not working… I have fifty other things to do as well, and I’m wasting time trying to send this… so how do I know if it’s… what red… oh. Its recording. Shame! forget it, it’s recording, I’ve done it…
Professor Caragee. This is a message from Rose Collins. Due to the extreme importance, I have decided to oversee this mission personally. Captain Maddox has informed me that about eight hours ago, the automated deceleration programme of the ship kicked in as we began our approach to… the target. The crew and I were… what’s the word… woken up, I guess… about three hours ago – still feeling a little green around the gills; some of us. Anyway, we will have visual contact with… Chione… in a couple of hours, and I think you should be up here in the command centre when that happens. The Captain will be sending down an automated drill-probe as soon as possible, and I would like you to begin work on analysing the returning samples as soon as they get here. The command centre stations should now be free for you to access via the transport shuttle, so come right along to the end of the line as soon as you receive this message and… well… see you soon… ok… how do I… stop… God damn it… How do I stop it recording?… Do I press the same bu…”
The screen went black.
* * *
Racing through the tunnel in the transport shuttle had afforded Jan a chance to compose himself slightly; or at least begin to glue together some of the shards of his short-term memory. Again, his scientific desire to explore had usurped frightened anxiety. He had an immediate concern; the living water of Chione. That needed further exploration. In the aftermath of the Meltdown, in this trundling transport pod, Jan had begun to reconcile himself to this initially incomprehensible sight that his own mind had initially blocked from itself. “Self preservation,” Jan had concluded, “the brain protecting itself from a traumatic realisation whilst in a fragile metal state.” The prognosis was reassuring, and now the initial horror at the discovery was beginning to give way to a furious curiosity. Was it truly a life form he had seen in the waters of Chione? How could it be? No light permeated the planet; only a scant amount of the sun’s rays illuminated this distant little ball. The sample came from just under the planet’s surface ice crust, existing at a shade over absolute zero. Surely nothing could live in such a desolate environment. Surely nothing could be alive. But that movement. Oh, that glorious hideous movement. Propulsion through the infinitesimal waves. Flashes of colour. Silver. Blue. Questions poured through Jan’s mind, forming and foaming on his tongue, begging to be answered in the only way they could; by revisiting the scene.
For a moment, Jan had a compulsion to stop the pod, run to the other side of the corridor; however far along he now was, and return instantly to the lab, to begin the examination. However, as he looked up to the schematic display to assess his relative position, the gushing wind and the aesthetically pleasing colour scheme – luminescent yellow and blue encased in dazzling obsidian black – Jan was lulled once more into catatonic serenity. Each bright flash as the transport pod raced past another alcove ‘station’ was another revolving blades of a wind turbine in the unending Blyth power complex blighting the bucolic Northumberland of his family’s car journeys. Jan felt the tidal compulsion to be drawn back into the security of that known world; the world of memories, the world he had been instructed to partition off and forget, the world of remembrance. A world in which not only was the contextualising past known for each moment relived – what had come before – but an even more powerful knowledge of the subsequent events also shaded the remembrances – what happened next.
Jan, now speeding through the belly of the Aspidochelone, thought back to the family car, part of his mind desperately trying to wrench him back into dealing with present concerns – and there were so many to deal with – but large swathes of his mind relinquishing and subsiding back into the forbidden security of the past.
Jan was in the family car; the fractious silence post-argument. He wanted to tell his younger self that he grows up to become a top scientist in the UNAF government; the fifteen-year-old Jan would be impressed no end by that! He wanted to turn to his still silently sobbing sister, tell her how much he still misses her; tell her not to go and “experience firsthand” the protests in London in four years time; tell her that as the unrelenting heat ratchets up the tension on the streets, someone will somehow unwillingly light the powder keg; tell her that they will never find her body; tell her that their mum and dad will never recover; tell her that even now he dreams of the potential life she would have had, we she still alive. Using the future of that past. Contextualising memories.
As the pod pressed on nearer to the previously forbidden stations – marked by the alluring crimson lights – Jan slowly returned to the crushing reality of the moment; leaving his family to travel up that lonely hill in Northumberland to Buddle Bay; to a holiday already enjoyed over fifty years ago.
The pod drew nearer the invisible barrier. “Five stops”. A pause. “Four,” then “three. Will the pod grind to a resolute halt? Will there be a flash of that beautiful, complementary crimson?” The pod continued on unabated. “Two.” An agonising pause. Then, as if the deep-red barrier had been an illusion, the small light bulb four spaces from the end of the diagram shone a deep emerald green, followed by the next, and the next.
Even with all the swirling maelstrom of thoughts swimming through Jan’s head, he still found a small, bright space to reflect that this new colour – as pleasing as it looked in itself, despite the excitement that met its discovery, and despite its elevating significance – did not complement the yellow and blue stalwarts as well as did the red.
The pod came to a silent rest outside a much larger alcove.
“Where the hell have you been? I sent you an urgent message two and a half hours ago.” Over her shoulder to some unseen presence, she barked “David; did that urgent message to Professor Caragee send?” turning back with a smile, she answered her own question “well I guess it must have, or you wouldn’t… anyway, get up here”, then added as an afterthought, “It’s good to see you.”
Rose was standing at the top of a long but shallow flight of stairs; one hundred metres away from Jan by only two metres higher. Jan found himself standing in a circular ante-chamber, coloured the same oppressive grey as the corridors, which housed the transport alcove and the staircase and nothing else. He had never really seen eye to eye with Rose when working in Washington. In truth he had never really seen her all that much; she had been reluctant to ever venture into the laboratory, and Jan had only ever used meeting with Rose at the White House as a pretext for wandering the labyrinthine corridors on the off chance that he may bump into Maria Cardenas. However, now seeing her standing awkwardly at the top of the stairs, Jan was overcome by a wave of relief at seeing a familiar face; any face. He skipped up the steps to greet her, and for a moment felt like he might hug her, but the moment passed and he restrained himself. He was unable to refrain from blurting out “you’re the first person I’ve seen for about four months.”
“Well,” replied Rose, with the direct and prolonged eye-contact that on Earth Jan had found distinctly uncomfortable, but now he drank up “you’re about to see a few more faces up here, professor. Welcome to the command centre of the UNAF Service Craft Aspidochelone”
* * *
The grandly titled ‘command centre’ did not fail to live up to its billing. It had the kind of vastness that oozes wealth from every pore; the type of design that the entire UNAF, Jan had come to realise, was based around: ostentatious in size and filled with as much technology as possible. From the top of the shallow staircase, Jan looked out over a vast open space, punctuated half way along by three large banks of controls, after which there was a slight decline into what appeared to be some sort of observation platform. The walls were curved into a 240° arc of entirely black glass, snaking around to meet the stairwell on both sides. Below the control banks, in the lower part of the command centre, the black glass walls arced up above Jan’s head as segments of a giant sphere to meet a metallic roof above the control banks. As Jan’s eyes acclimatised to the atmospheric gloom in the command centre from the perpetual brightness of the mundane corridor, he began to see small flecks of light emanating from the initially jet-black walls. No; not emanating from the wall, shining through the wall, which Jan could now tell was entirely transparent, save for the sporadic thin white-grey frames that held the giant curved segments in place. “Glass?” thought Jan, naively, trying to come to terms with the magnitude of this space.
“Sheet diamond” came Rose’s reply, picking up on the confusion in Jan’s face, and delivered with the air of a proud home owner. “Eighty-two panels. Those ones at the front are fifteen metres by five. I can’t tell you how much they cost, but we’ve got to have a view, right?!” Rose allowed herself a decadent little chuckle. Jan was so overjoyed to be in the company of other people that the usual pious cynicism he used to greet any “U-Naffer” when they began boasting about money was temporarily overridden, and he chuckled too.
The grand room was dimly lit; rows of phosphorescent lighting strips ran like ribbons curving around and accentuating the contours of the space. Apart from these, each of the indeterminate consoles – in three banks in the centre of the room – had a series of small lamps above them, illuminating the complex control panels. In front of each console sat two technicians; hunched and rapidly tapping and dragging dextrous digits across screens that displayed mesmerising skeins of symbols and lines. The displays meant nothing to Jan, but he noticed that the same yellow and blue against profound black colour scheme was used here too. Again he felt reassured by the omnipresence of these colours throughout the ship; they serve to anchor him to some tangible point of reference, give him a toe hold of belonging in this alien control centre.
Turning behind him to face the staircase, Jan noticed the convex mezzanine running the length of the back wall. Bulging out in its centre and meeting the sheet diamond panels at each edge. This mezzanine was almost completely without light; only small orange LEDs blinked sporadically along its whole length, accompanied by the sound of a thousand small fans ticking over.
Turning back to the impenetrable darkness flecked with impossibly distant stars displayed through the diamond screens, Jan began to get a dizzying feeling of isolation. A shade of realisation at the precariousness of their existence; of humanity’s existence began to colour his vision and settle as a dull, impenetrable ache. He let out a low whistle of baffled amazement.
“Impressive, huh?” cooed a smug Rose, who had been standing patiently. Allowing the magnitude of the surroundings to skin in for Jan.
“And you see that little point of light there?” came a voice from behind Jan; a deep, confident voice, on the cusp of spilling over into self-assured laughter it seemed. Jan turned his neck slightly to see a tall, handsome man. He was pointing dead ahead, one eye firmly closed, the other squinting. He too looked tired and slightly dishevelled. “That one right there,” he continued to point, resting his other hand on Jan’s shoulder. “Know what that is? The sun. Our sun, prof. Never been a human out this for from it before. I’m Captain Daniel Maddox,” then, taking a look at Jan for the first time added “did your S.A. Unit let you out late or something? You look like hell!”
“My S.A? No… no I wasn’t in… suspension”
“You mean you’ve been awake for the whole journey? I’d go stir crazy if that was me!”
Abashed, Jan looked down at the floor, concentrating on the glowing ribbons of phosphorescence, squeezing his left eye tightly shut to try and expunge the image of himself hunched and quivering under his blankets from two days earlier; the nadir of the recent ‘Fear Meltdown’. “Well… I had a lot of good books to read…. and, and, and… some… work in the lab to…” He rushed and trailed off on the last justification of his actions over the last four months. Though he had come to terms, as much as he could, with the potential new finding in the lab; that solitary creature – was ‘creature’ the right word? – in its minute aquatic world, he felt he needed plenty of time on his own to work out as many of the intricacies of such a discovery and the potentially catastrophic consequences of divulging it to Rose and the Captain. Indeed, he needed primarily to confirm the finding. He still held out a small hope in the back of his mind that the movement in the water he had seen would turn out to be a trick of the light or something – anything – other than what it appeared to be. But the hope grew smaller with each replay of the image in his mind. It was not replaced by certainty, but curiously, and with increasing rapidity, it was being replaced by a hope for, and tremendous excitement about, the possible first discovery of alien life. Life in the waters of Chione. Discovered by Professor Jan Caragee.
Jan’s thoughts were interrupted by Captain Maddox before they could fully mull over the impact of returning to Earth with examples of alien life forms. Clearly the Captain had been lost in his own world of thought too.
“You mean you were conscious during the deceleration we went through about… ten hours ago?”
“Yes… err… I think so; I didn’t really notice it I don’t think… I was…”
“Didn’t notice it?!” the captain interjected. “When I was doing basic training, we did a seven-click-over-three deceleration, and I damn near passed out; and you’re telling me you just went through a twelve-over-four and didn’t notice it? Boy, you’re one tough old man! You should have been seeing the purple halo and felt like someone was pouring molten lead into your veins.”
As the Captain continued to describe, in more and more outrageous and graphic metaphors what Jan should have felt like going through the deceleration of a ship the size of the ‘Aspidochelone’ travelling at that speed, Jan switched off, and mentally breathed a long overdue sigh of relief. He felt as though a large weight that had been tacitly pressing him down had been removed. It had been the rapid deceleration of the ship that had caused the descent into unconsciousness back in the room; he had seen an indigo corona – the ‘purple halo’ as Maddox had called it – but he had put it down to another ‘Fear Meltdown’. He began to wonder whether the deceleration had begun to affect him even earlier. Maybe back in the lab. Maybe the collapse he thought was triggered by the movement in the water sample was caused by this same exterior process? Maybe even the apparition itself was due to the shift in spectrum? But these events were days earlier, and were thrown in by the recalcitrant, nervous corner of Jan’s mind still hoping for a return to the quotidian before the impossible discovery more as a wish than as a legitimate hypothesis. What could he trust? Not his eyes, it would seem; not for the past days anyway. Certainly not his memory. All he knew was that he had to check the Chione sample again. He had to verify the finding. Suddenly he felt the compulsion to return to the lab engulf him once more. He had a desire to run from the opulent darkness of the command centre to the haphazard clutter of the lab; the place which for days previously during the ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Rebuild’ had been an unimaginable forbidden zone had now become a beacon drawing him in – compelling him to return. He couldn’t get there quickly enough; the sensation burning into his senses. But how to leave?
When a lull in the stilted conversation between the Captain, Jan and Rose elongated into a silence, Jan ventured “well, Captain, Rose, it has been great to see you both, but you’re tired, and I have some pressing work to attend to, so if you don’t mind I think I’ll…”
“Hold on a moment, prof,” Captain Maddox cut in again, “I think there’s something here you might want to see. Demba. Status report if you please.”
Without looking around from the yellow-blue-black display, one of the six hunched technicians replied “just bringing the Asp. Around now, sir. Should have visual in a couple of minutes through central screens.”
“Excellent, chief technician, thank you,” smiled Maddox. “Professor, old boy, this is what we’re here for.”
They stood silently for a minute, then two, the Captain frozen, eyes peering intently out into the unending blackness ahead of them, expectant smile plastered onto tired face. Jan turned a quizzical expression toward Rose, who was casting the same expectant smile in Jan’s direction. She said nothing, and only nodded towards the sheet diamond windows. Jan smiled uneasily back, looking deep into Rose’s hazel eyes, finding them glinting with excitement. Rose’s hand immediately shot to her face, her index finger nursing the white patch by her left eye. For the first time, she was the one to break eye contact with Jan, and she turned back towards the blackness ahead. His smile becoming easier, Jan did the same.
He was on the cusp of breaking the silence, the image of moving water playing in his head, when Captain Maddox reached out his arm again and whispered “there!”
Still Jan could see nothing. He took two steps forward, peering deep into the void. “Kill the lights” said Rose in an overly dramatic voice, her eyes also transfixed by the invisible entity on the other side of the diamond sheet, finger still caressing the white patch by her eye. A technician taped a few unseen points on his display, and the lamps ahead of them dimmed and cut out. The room was now entirely dark, save for the faint, dimmed glow of the phosphorescent ribbons guiding safe routes along the floor. Jan felt his eyes widen, his pupils dilate. Then he truly saw the stars. Where before there had been only a sporadic covering, now a dusting of silver twinkled over every inch of the huge curves screens; white specs tossed liberally across black velvet. It was truly an awesome spectacle. Whilst drinking in the spectacle, Jan noticed an expanse of black not peppered with stars slowly encroaching upon the central diamond screen from the right. This void continued to move slowly around until it covered fully the central portion of the middle diamond panel, and over on third of the two panels on either side. Looking to the top left of the central panel, Jan saw a thin scimitar of white light, and maybe even, though he couldn’t be sure, a trace line, appearing only millimetres thick, of deep blue below it, appearing to hint at the outline of a vast spherical object. Jan found himself unconsciously walking forward towards the panels, stopping on the shallow decline that led to the observation platform below the control desks. He was not alone; Maddox and Rose walked with him.
Putting his hand slowly upon the shoulder of one of the technicians, who was still rapidly and ceaselessly tapping and sliding away on the screen, Captain Maddox, in preoccupied monotone, asked “Demba. Do you think we could get some light on this thing?”
Without turning around, the technician tapped a number of points on the screen, before announcing in a hesitant baritone “switching to main beams, sir.”
Instantly, two beams of light burst from below the diamond sheet display screens. So powerful were the lights that Jan thought he felt the floor beneath him grown perceptually hotter and begin to irradiate heat up through his feet. The effect was probably down to the shock of the vision in front of him.
For now gloriously illuminated was Chione 91168: the entirely water-based drifting planetoid. The object and subject of their mission. The saviour of humanity.
A crescent shape taking up 120° of the circle visible, from just above centre-right to just past bottom-left, and encompassing about one-third of the visible surface of Chione, was a dirty white colour; opaque and littered with pock-marks, scars and ridges. However, the rest of the astral body shone with a brilliance that brought Jan to silent tears. At its centre, the colour was so deep that it was virtually indistinguishable from that of the vacuum around it, though with the light from the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ beams playing off its surface – bouncing off the immaculately clear ice – it glinted like a highly polished piece of volcanic glass. Jan’s mind turned again to the wide, glinting eyes of Maria; how they had shined that one night.
This impenetrable black gloss yielded in the most spectacular spectrum; a monochrome rainbow of uncountable variants of blue, lightening towards the edge. From the perfect black of the centre, to the merest hint of colour, to an impossibly deep blue, through royal, ultramarine, sapphire, monastral, cobalt, cornflower, azure’ each gleaming spectacularly; each given its own millimetre of resplendence, each giving of itself to the proceeding hue. Through maya, sky, electric to a ring – again, only appearing mere millimetres thick – of the most delicate powder blue, before being engulfed in a halo of white.
Punctuating this spectrum ran two near-parallel scars, almost exactly north to south, continuing on under the south pole of Chione 91168.
“Water,” breathed Rose, caressing the large patch of white on her jaw bone.
“and not a drop to drink” replied Jan, images of the living water in his lab dancing through his mind, only gradually becoming aware of the possibilities that lay in the glorious blue body before him.
“Not yet” Captain Maddox said, and with a snap, sprung into animated ordering. “Right; Demba. I want a full scan of target Chione 91168 completed within two hours, and I want the drill-probe down there as soon as possible,” then turning to Jan with unblinking eyes “the prof. has been stuck up here for four months on his own looking at ice shavings. Let’s give him something real to look at.” Then shaking off this perturbing stare, he concluded with the same amiable air that had greeted Jan less than half an hour ago. “So, old man, Rose; whilst these busy guys get to work with the probe, I would like to invite you both to the Captain’s quarters for a celebratory drink.” He finished the invitation with a little bow and a vocal flourish that Jan assumed must be an imitation of his own English accent. “Love too” Jan acquiesced without feeling, “but just a quick one, I do have to get back to the lab.”
“But you must have felt something,” Maddox demanded, his back turned to the seated Rose and Jan. Carefully, Maddox turned to face his guests, spinning slowly on his heels, carrying three squat crystal tumblers, each three-quarters full of pale amber liquid. “It was a twelve-over-four deceleration, and you were where… in your lab?” A chuckle from the Captain which, to Jan, walked a precarious line between genuine surprise and derisory disbelief.
Maddox placed the three tumblers onto the brushed chrome desk around which the three were seated. He sat in his own perfunctory black armchair – Jan mentally cringed at the decadence of his own green leather Chesterfield armchair – and absent-mindedly sucked the few spilt drops from the tumblers from the back of his tanned hands. “I suppose I must have felt something,” Jan conceded, “but I was in my quarters at the time, not in the lab”. Captain Maddox had stopped listening to Jan, having turned his attention fully to the glass in his hand. Maddox took a deep gulp, composed himself, eyes closed to the burning taste, before theatrically smacking his lips and sighing contently.
Jan had been, he hoped surreptitiously, studying Captain Maddox since their meeting, trying to decide what to make of him. He was one of those men the UNAF was both expert at producing and lavish in extolling; handsome, square-jawed, supremely self-confident, tall, taking even the most banal of events as some life affirming competition in which, to assure he was the victor, someone had to be cast as the loser. Maddox had thick black hair, cut short but still plentiful. The vague flecks of silver had begun to establish themselves. Given a few years to develop, they would be said to give him an air of gravitas and character and would virtually guarantee the Captain the position of Admiral. His chin and cheeks were coloured a steely blue by impinging stubble, already visibly protruding a mere seven or eight hours out of suspended animation. The same thick black hair sprouted, hinting at its abundance, from the Captain’s shirt at collar and cuffs; meeting the stubbled scrubland of his Adam’s apple and sprouting into the rugged terrain of the back of his hands.
He was the sort of man Jan had admired intensely as a youth and despised with equal vigour as an old man. Maddox reminded him of a “U-Naffer” student he had met in his first month at Oxford. Graham Zee; an almost preposterously handsome athletic fellow, with dubious scholastic acumen and exorbitantly wealthy family, Jan later discovered. Zee had, within a fortnight of being at the university, walked into the Magdalene College land-rowing first team (the depleted Isis River no longer able to support the sport for most of the year). Jan had been in awe of Graham Zee, even watching him practice on a couple of occasions, until he had settled into his own more comfortable surroundings, and dissolved into an unending academic world of minute experimentation and long solitary walks into the baking countryside.
* * *
“… in your time here, Professor?”
Jan blinked, looked up from the mesmerising plain of the chrome desk and blurted out “Graham Zee”
A moment of silence, Maddox stifling a snort. “Graham Zee? The Olympic land-rower? What’s he got to do with anything?” Maddox said, a bemused smile that melded confusion with pity to create profound insult growing across his face. The look helped Jan recontextualise himself. “Nothing,” he replied, mentally shaking himself awake. “Nothing… no, I just… I went to college with him and… you remind me a little of him” Jan said in self-deprecating, apologetic tones, hoping to dismiss the subject of his most recent uncalled memory.
“Well” said the Captain, the confused/pitiful/derisory smile still in position “If I’d won six gold medals over three Olympic Games, I wouldn’t be up in this crate drilling for water, I’d be sitting on California Island sipping Champagne like I bet Graham Zee is right now!” He laughed at his own vision, then, with renewed enthusiasm added “but I bet even Graham Zee won’t have something as good as this in his liquor cabinet.” He motioned towards the tumbler in his hand. “Genuine Scotch whiskey,” he said at Jan, unblinking, accentuating every word, “from your old neck of the woods, hey prof? Not quite as costly as your diamond windows, Rosie, or your bottle of H2O, prof. but it still cost a pretty penny or two!” this last was delivered again with a theatrical flourish which Jan was now convinced was the Captain’s imitation of his accent; ‘Britishness’ as understood and refracted through the prism of a cultural moron.
“A toast” Maddox continued, relishing his role holding court; a role he was born for. “To the success of this mission, to the lives of all our loved ones back home, and to that big blue bastard out there; she’s the answer to all out prayers.” They each raised a glass, Rose taking a bird-like sip, Maddox, eyes closed, head tilted back, Adam’s apple quivering, drained the glass in one. Jan took a modest mouthful, allowing the whiskey to rest on his tongue, stinging his taste buds slightly, mellowing and mixing with saliva, perfumed vapours rising like incense through his sinuses, before swallowing; the burning in his throat, the warm tingle in his belly.
“So; apart from thinking about Graham Zee,” continued Maddox, “what else have you been doing up here all by yourself, prof?”
The image of the movement in the water pierced Jan’s mind like a cold shard of ice. He forced it from his mind. It was now unsubstantiated. Maybe it was little more than a hallucination conjured by changing tides of gravitational pulling and an inner tempest of anxiety. But still Jan knew in some primal core of his brain that he had gazed upon life in the water sample, and he knew with ever-increasing clarity what a drastic revelation it would be. He must not boast of it now in a shallow attempt to get one over the increasingly patronising Maddox, though he would revel in doing so. He had to rise above the goading, and approach the revelation as clinically and scientifically as possible. He ached to get back to the familiar surroundings of the lab. “Nothing spectacular,” Jan forced from within himself “reading… some preliminary experiments on…” he stifled a wince, masking it by rubbing his forehead with his hand, “the Chione ice… also, I’ve been writing… a book, a new book.”
Rose, who had been silently perched on the edge of her chair, straight backed and sipping her whiskey, joined the conversation. “Oh, how interesting Professor Caragee,” then, taking a deeper sip, she ventured “Jan… What is it about?” she asked with genuine interest, peering over the top of her glasses, head slightly cocked.
Glad of the chance to steer the conversation towards a more familiar, and safer, subject, with a modest half-smile, Jan began to explain the concept of the book. “It’s really a continuation of my first book, Rose, bringing the political story of water up to the present day, mapping its journey from commodity into…”
“Well you’ll have to come up with a new chapter once this bird comes back down to Earth, won’t you prof. ‘Water from the Heavens’. Hell, you’ve got yourself a whole third book there,” exclaimed Maddox, who had brought the crystal decanter of whiskey over to the table and, without offering any to wither Jan or Rose, had poured and downed another glass himself.
“I have written other books,” replied Jan, feeling himself being unwillingly drawn into this pointless conversation-turned-competition. “This is a continuation of my first”.
“… and I’m a huge fan of your work, Professor, as you know,” Rose interjected, perhaps conscious of the growing tension; hoping either to dispel it slightly, or to pledge her allegiance to the aging academic. “I don’t know if you know this or not, but I wrote my own thesis at college on the political usage of natural resources, using a lot of your ideas… and those of Isaac Pitts, of course.”
“Of course” said Jan, smiling at this woman with whom he had worked for five years, but he felt he was truly seeing for the first time. On Earth she had been too eager to please those above her in the chain of command; would not venture an opinion unless it was certain to meet with majority approval. But here, in this lonely corner of the solar system, where she was at least ostensibly in charge, Jan could see Rose’s own personal authority burgeoning. He felt the beginnings of warm smile begin on his lips as he looked into hazel eyes. “We all owe Professor Pitts a great deal of gratitude. Indeed, if the academics and politicians of his generation had given his work a little more credence, we might not be reduced to scouring deep space for astrological puddles!”
Rose let out a musical, high-pitched laugh that resonated through Jan. He smiled even more broadly, and she caressed the small white dot below her eye. The moment was swamped as soon as it was established by Maddox who, draining another glass and immediately refilling it, spat out indignantly “puddles?” the word drenched with the residual fiery liquid cascading around gums and teeth. “Puddles? My God, prof. I know you Brits like a little bit of understatement,” again the theatrical affectation was utilised, “but come on! We’re talking about a body if water – pure liquid water, as far as we can tell, we’ll have the probe back in -” Maddox unconsciously looked at his wrist. There was no watch. “- soon. A body of water the volume of the moon,” The stressed word was left to hang in the air with a dramatic pause, accompanied by the unblinking stare fixed on Jan. “The moon, professor. Our moon,” Maddox continued, slowly nodding his head as if explaining something to a small child “A body of water that, once treated, could supply the entire UNAF, on increased rations, for something like twenty years? And you’re calling it a puddle? Come on, old man, cut me some slack!”
Surprised by the outburst, Jan had tried to interject a couple of times, unsuccessfully. As Maddox leaned heavily back in his chair, Jan took the opportunity to reply. “I didn’t mean to belittle the effort, Captain. Far from it. I only meant that a little more frugality from our forbears may have saved us the effort.”
The Captain had sunk a foot lower into his chair, a quarter-full glass in one hand, the cold blue stubble that had initially made him appear rugged to Jan, now, in his current state on the cusp of full inebriation, made him seem dishevelled. With glassy eyes, he stared with a confused expression at Jan, scrunching up his chiselled features.
“Save us the effort?” Maddox shook his head almost mournfully. “This isn’t an effort. It’s not a chore. It’s a mission. It’s a quest. We’re not doing it because we have to; we’re doing it because we can; because this is what we do. Do you think my ancestors who travelled west across the old country – the States – do you think they saw it as an effort? Hell no, it was an adventure!” Jan suddenly was affronted by a mental image of Maddox as the archetypal man through the ages; as the fearless hunter-gatherer, as a pioneer of the old wild west, as one of the utopian first astronauts, as a timeless explorer and conquistador. “It’s human nature. We explore, we conquer strange new lands. Do you think, do you honestly think” Maddox asked rhetorically, slurping from and draining another glass of whiskey, leaning forward now, still unblinking at Jan across the desk, “when the first guy invented the wheel, when Ford invented the mass-produced car, when the Wright brothers first flew, when the nuclear steam guy… Carlson… when he invented the NuSteam engine. When all these great men made advances, do you think they resented having to do so? No!” Maddox hammered the desk with a fist. “Hell no. They did it out of necessity and because humans have, and always will, strive to do better, to be better, to have better. Do… do… you think,” Maddox was becoming more and more agitated, squirming in his seat as more rhetorical questions flooded his mind. Yet his pitch-black eyes remained in a fixed stare on Jan. “do you think for one moment that when all those inventions were made, everybody else sat around and said “that’ll do”? No. The day after each of those things were made, somebody else started working on a new invention that would do the same thing but better.”
Having recovered from the venom of Maddox’s impassioned outburst, Jan felt the compulsion to respond. “Look, I’m not denigrating the desire to invent, or man’s insatiable curiosity. I’m just saying that we have a responsibility to our environment, even if only for the selfish reason that to do so will help ensure our preservation and ultimate survival as a species. We have a duty to care for and manage our resources, or else we find ourselves in the position we’re in globally today; where our fresh water – the most essential element for all life on Earth – is so scarce as to bring unimaginable hardship upon vast swathes of the global population, and lead eventually to the relatively fortunate nations such as the UNAF to this outrageously drastic measure to ensure… what? Twenty measly years more of the good life… and then what? Do we go traipsing off among the stars in search of a bigger ball of water? What about if we run out of food? Do we go searching for a planet made entirely out of hamburger meat?”
Rose stifled another musical giggle; Jan flashed her a radiant smile. Maddox just sat across the desk from him, glassy eyed and expressionless.
“Just a bit more responsibility; a modicum more frugality, and we wouldn’t have to resort to such drastic measures,” Jan concluded, as if signing off on an academic paper; an air of arrogant confidence that he was in possession of all the facts returned to him. It was quickly ripped away from him by Maddox.
“You fucking… sanctimonious… You’ve had a life of plenty, used more than your fair share, I’ll bet. Christ; when we were putting together this bird, you requested two litres of pure H2O for experimenting with. And why shouldn’t you? You shouldn’t feel bad. You wanted it, you got it.” Jan half thought about interjecting that he was only given a litre-and-a-half, but he though the distinction might be pedantic. “But don’t you dare sit there and tell me that we should sacrifice what is rightfully ours so future generations won’t have to worry about fighting for themselves.” There was a real animosity driving Maddox’s tirade; a personal undercurrent, Jan thought, and although he was no psychologist, he knew well enough that there was some uncharted geyser of emotion threatening to erupt here within Maddox, and that the safest thing to do would be to concede this round of the argument. Jan would, he reconciled himself, have to come back for a second round to introduce the concept of life in Chione; the stakes then would be even higher, best to save himself for that.
Maddox, sensing a retreat from combat by his academic adversary, sought to hammer home his point. “Previous generations have left us with our current problems, and we will solve them using the ingenuity and technology we create. Any issues that future generations may or may not face, they will deal with in exactly the same way.” Maddox drained the remainder of this his sixth or seventh glass, and with diminishing energy added, “we are going to extract the water from Chione 91168… all the water, and we’re going to transport it back to Earth and if, in twenty years time, I have to climb back into this crate and fly around the solar system looking for another source of water, then that’s what I’ll do.”
There was a pause as the captain finished his words, Jan, though seething with the desire to respond, having reconciled himself to concede this argument and get back to the lab. Maddox sat back once more in his chair, eyes still fixed on Jan, a veneer of triumph glossed across his face now. As if waiting for the silence, there came a knock at the door; a knock that began timorously, then, as if aware of its own feeble sound, grew in strength.
“Enter” said Maddox, his fixation with Jan broken, his head wheeling around groggily to meet the door.
The technician who had operated the spot lights on Chione earlier entered the room, a folder in hand. “Demba,” the Captain spat, then pausing, “what?”
“Oh, sorry sir… it’s just the probe sir… it has… it’s just docked with the ship. Preliminary tests show it is holding twenty litres of liquid, and that it appears to be almost 100% pure water.”
“Fantastic news, Demba. Alright, I want you to go ahead and bring the ship into position to drop the drill-straw. Let’s start drinking!”
“Now hold on a moment,” Rose interrupted, rising slightly from her seat, body suddenly tense, “I’m just as eager as you to get this mission underway but,” she faced technician Demba, “you did say almost… 100% didn’t you?”
His eyes darting between folder, Captain Maddox, and the floor, Demba replied “ah… yes… ah… it’s just… if you hold one… one… yes. Here… preliminary tests conducted by the in-probe… um… mechanisms report that…. um… trace elements… of… um….of”
“Of what?” enquired Rose with a disquieting calm.
“Of… of… well… in-probe systems were unable to determine exactly wh… what…”
“So there is are trace amounts of an unknown element within the sample, is that what you’re telling me?” Rose said, one eyebrow raised, with all the authority of a headmistress addressing an errant schoolboy on his first day back after the summer holidays.
“Yes… erm… yes… ma’am.”
Turning her head slowly back towards Maddox, Rose continued “and you see no problem, Captain, in the proposal to extract some twenty billion cubic kilometres of water into a tank above the hull of this ship, super-heat it and return to Earth to distribute the water for human consumption, without first giving it even a cursory scientific examination by human eyes?”
The question was clearly rhetorical, though Maddox, looking as sheepish as his technician, tried to answer anyway. Rose did not allow him.
“Well let me tell you, Captain, I do have a problem with it. We have an eminent expert with a specialism in nanoscopic examinations of water sources on this mission for one very simple reason; to check the suitability of the water on Chione 91168 for human consumption. That is why Professor Caragee is here, and that is what he is going to do. Technician Demba, I would like you to personally deliver three, one-litre samples of probe water to the professor’s lab immediately,” then, with a slightly less icy, though no less authoritative, tone, said to Jan “Professor, if you wouldn’t mind ensuring your tests are quick but vigorous, we don’t want to be out here any longer than we have to, but we don’t want to make any mistakes.”
Jan hadn’t really been listening. He had switched off, the unknown life in the Chione water filling his thoughts. “We’re taking all of it?” he asked, his mouth suddenly dry at the implication, “we’re going to drain the whole planet?”
“Well of course we are,” replied Rose simply, “we’re not going to come all this way for a sip, are we?”
Racing through the transport tunnel, artificial wind whistling past his ears, the pale white light from each alcove passed strobing to his left, the machinal humming and whirring, the reassuring yellow and bold blue of the transport display. For the unending blur of days, weeks and months Jan had travelled this route, these inanimate aspects had become as friends; familiar and accommodating. Usually they would lull him into waking dreams; dreams and memories, uncalled and wrought illicit by the harsh commands of his flight training. Uncalled, unwanted, but never unpleasant. Even the saddest of memories; the ones that were consciously blocked, that would occasionally pierce and force their way through the barrier to the surface; even these memories had a strange, plaintive pleasure to them now in this isolated hinterland. They provided Jan with a nostalgia for a time of any strong emotion; a time where changes of mood within were caused by people and events from without. Even the most melancholy vaults in his flickering and unreliable archive could make Jan smile now, for if they offered even a momentary diversion from the isolated confusion of the present, they would be welcomed.
Usually the transport would lull Jan into waking dreams. But not now. Now Jan’s mind was alive to his present, finally beginning to reason with the swirling ocean of interrelated worries inside himself. He had ceased to divorce the present from the past by realising the potential outcomes of impending actions upon the future. Now he would use the transport time to organise thoughts; pin down the blanket and find some solutions.
“If I am on a mission to help preserve humanity,” thought Jan, “then I must being by preserving my own, and it is in memories that I will find it; it is through remembrance that I will preserve it. But why have I been so afraid of remembrance? Because the memories have sprung upon me, dragged me from this waking dream-world where I have to concentrate every moment to remind myself of the seriousness of the excursion? Because the Generals in flight training were so vociferous in their message to dampen memories, as they can lead to a retrogressive destruction alone in space? Maybe because the violent disjunct of this present has forced me to artificially compartmentalise this present from my otherwise interconnected past. Nothing I have done really has lead to this moment, so I have forced myself to box it away and live only in this moment, terrified of any encroaching context from outside. But in doing so, I have forgotten the reason I am here – to bring back a reservoir of water to slake mankind’s insatiable thirst.”
It had been weeks – months, even – since Jan had spoken to himself in this rational voice. With increasing regularity, the voice of internal monologue had been one of a frightened old man; or incoherent or mute. Now he felt again the power of taking a problem and analysing it as objectively as he could, and he felt his previous level-headed sanity gushing back to him. Maybe it was the contact with other people, even if only for a couple of hours, even if in that time he had had an argument with Captain Maddox. Just hearing a true external voice had reignited Jan’s own internal ‘external voice’, and it was a welcome return.
“This mission is crucial, but something is not right. What we – what Rose and Maddox – intend to do, draining the water from that planet, it is not right. But why? Is it because there may be life in the water?” Jan’s mind still rippled at the concept; the word ‘life’ as a stone cast into a smooth lake, muddying the clearing waters. He forced himself to fully confront the previously unimaginable truth. “Life… extra-terrestrial life – the first and only other life we know of – in this humble ball of ice and water? But this is still up in the air,” reasoned Jan, “as yet inconclusive.” He urged the whistling pod on to its destination; another five minutes or so. “But even if it turns out to be a trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by the pressure of rapid deceleration, or the pressure of four months of solitary confinement – and I now doubt all of these possibilities – something still feels wrong in the emptying of this planet for our own needs. Is it that we intend to take it all; to cast the shell of this world into the depths of space, entirely spent? Or is it that this astral bounty is to be enjoyed by one single conglomerate nation, and not shared around the globe? Is it that, having exhausted resources on one planet, man seems to have no hesitation and no remorse in doing the same to another? Or is it that we won’t learn – will never learn, are incapable of learning – the most profound lesson; that we do not have some divine right to imbibe every single morsel, every droplet, every atom without thought for others – without thought even for the ‘other’ of our future selves?”
“Maybe we do have such a divine right?” Jan’s inner voice, in the role of devil’s advocate, and in the tone of Maddox, counter argued. “The divine right may not necessarily have come from a divine source, but with nothing to stop us, perhaps we have assumed divinity and given ourselves the right by the very fact that we can. Maybe it is our destiny to scour the heavens for our own gain. Who is to stop us? Why must we stop ourselves, stop our inexorable progress?”
But Jan resisted this counter argument, and willed the transport pod on, desperate now to confirm what he felt sure he would find. He now prayed for the conclusive discovery of life in the waters of Chione 91168; for it would make what he had to do that bit easier. He made a mental ‘to do’ list of his immediate actions:
- Clean the lab.
- Reconfirm the presence of unidentified entity in the sample ice from Chione 91168
- Confirm that this entity is indeed some kind of life form.
- Confirm presence of same in drill-probe sample of liquid water
- Stop Rose Collins and Captain Daniel Maddox from extracting the water from Chione 91168.
The pod decelerated and halted in front of an alcove, a small mustard-yellow light on the pod’s display flashing pleasantly. Jan clambered hurriedly from his seat and rushed to the laboratory door.
Although Jan felt an urgency he had not experienced for years, he hesitated at the laboratory door momentarily, his thumb hovering above the fingerprint ident. lock, his heart pounding. He was struck by an absurd image of an alien from some half-forgotten film seen as a child; bulbous head, hollow, almond-shaped eyes, slender fingers. The childish image brought forth in Jan an even stronger resolution to dispel the myths and fears he had of a discovery which may turn out to be the single most significant discovery every made by humanity: the first extraterrestrial life form.
Jan opened the door, groping for the natural light dimmer switch. He turned it almost a full circle clockwise; the smouldering embers of a dying sunset. That would be sufficient light for now. Hurriedly, he moved to the work bench. Part of him still hoped against hope to find nothing out of place; to find that the whole thing had been imagined. But as he rounded the corner of the stern white desk, and saw the fractured glint of sunset on myriad shards of glass, jutting out from a modest pool of water, itself contoured on one edge by the deep, burnt orange light; all hope of error was dashed. Seeing the scene once more precisely as he had left it days earlier, Jan was now in absolutely no doubt of what he had seen; and what he would see again.
The display screen of the nanoscope was still turned on, though both sides of the partition showed a smoky blue-grey, the left hand side a shade darker than the right. Jan was tempted to work with the two prepared slides he knew would still be within the monolithic body of the nanoscope – the pure control of the Earth water and the new aquatic Garden of Eden he had uncovered. He wanted to jump immediately back into the hunt for the illusive silver flash he had seen before, but his scientific mind told him that if he was to conclusively and accurately ascertain the verisimilitude of his discovery, new slides would have to be prepared, and he would have to clear up the mess caused on that unprecedented day; it was first on the newly formed list of things to do.
On bended knee, he began to pick up the shards of broken glass and, having nowhere to put them, opened one of the small drawers below the desk’s work surface, and flung them in. He also had no mop, the designers of the lab assuming that under no conceivable circumstances would a drop of water be spilled, so he grabbed the pristine lab coat from its hook – he had given up wearing it after a matter of days – and laid it with care over the miniature lake.
Walking with purpose to the natural light switch, he turned back half a quarter turn anticlockwise; a vibrant summer’s afternoon; radiant golden light pouring its brilliance through the artificial ‘windows’. With the same purpose, though maintaining the deliberate caution and care honed over a lifetime of scientific practice, Jan engaged in the solemn liturgy of preparing the two sample slides; though this time it was upon the less regal bottle labelled “Chione 91168: Sample #86b 04/19/2284 (surface ice)” that his hand trembled and his throat dried.
* * *
A blue-grey ocean, identical on both sides of the split screen. “Right is Earth, left is Chione”; the beginnings of a mantra. With a ‘Deep Breath’, Jan brought warm fingers to cold screen, magnifying the left hand side, cautiously at first, then bringing the control of the right hand side to the same magnitude. “Further and further down the rabbit hole; deeper and deeper into the chasm; darker and darker the abyss.” Pin pricks turned into dots, into orbs, into worlds. Solid, singular entities were carved into constituent molecules, then into constellations of atoms, then even deeper. And still nothing. No sign of the brilliance of life. “How far did I go last time? I wasn’t really concentrating. I was thinking of her; of Maria.”
He scanned the ridges of an infinitesimally small colossus, zooming even further into the parallel existence where the usually tangible anchors such as distance and size meant nothing. Once again, Jan found himself in a place where distinctions between large and small began to shed themselves of meaning. “I could be navigating a craft through the vast, unending seas of ancient Earth; searching for the plethora of species that used to live there.”
The blue-grey colour darkened a further shade to near complete darkness as Jan pushed even deeper into this sub-atomic universe. He adjusted the contrast on the screen. The right hand side now showed little more than a pixillated grey fog, but the left hand side still maintained a shimmer of blue and the hint of visible ‘landmarks’. Jan was pushing the nanoscope to the limits of its previously inexhaustible usefulness. Still nothing. Still no sign. “How much further will the nanoscope go? How much deeper can I probe? How much closer can I look?”
There was nothing on either screen now; just a soup of nothingness. Jan was peering into the gaps between matter – the hinterland between existence and non-existence. Did what the screen showed mean anything? There was no hint of movement, not even a discernable presence of water. There was nothing. Jan’s eyes relaxed themselves out of focus. With hand still on screen, he gave up his frenetic search. “All the things I should have said to her, that night she came to me. But even then I was too afraid. Of her. Of myself. All the things I wanted to say to her afterwards. But then I had to leave. The regret…”
* * *
Another sweltering night in Washington. Once more, Jan had missed the last shuttle-train back to his high-rise cube of an apartment which, even after four-and-a-half years, was still barely furnished: a book shelf, two chairs, a small table and a sofa bed; hardly the exorbitant environs of an eminent governmental advisor, but who did he have to impress? Who did he have to share it with? Besides, he was saving up quite a little nest egg. “Maybe I’ll retire,” Jan half thought, half dreamed every so often, “take my money and run – explore the Salt Flat cities, go back to Northumberland, finally finish that new book. Maybe.” But tonight, once more, Jan was left alone, bathed in muggy orange light from the street below his lab window; the last to leave, immersed in experimentation, drowning in paperwork and vials and beakers and syringes and nanoscope slides and loneliness and homesickness for a home that didn’t exist – that had never really existed. The last shuttle-train had gone. That meant an hour’s walk through still unfamiliar streets. On a hot night like this, tempers always flared on the baked concrete. Fear of the unknown and recognition of his own ineptitude meant Jan had, once more, reconciled himself to sleep at the lab. So often, of late, had Jan had to sleep in his partitioned office at the back of the lab, that he had brought in a sleeping bag and pillow and stored it in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet that he never used. “A quick look at this new slide, then I’ll make the bed,” Jan thought numbly.
The new water samples Jan’s lab had been handed via Rose two months ago had arrested almost all of Jan’s waking hours, though their source was still a mystery. On an otherwise uneventful day, whilst working abstractly, and fairly fruitlessly, on re-oxygenating contaminated water, three large metallic cylinders had been delivered to the lab, under preposterously heavy guard, with the labels “C***** 9**** Samples #01-03 04/19/2284 (******* ice)”. A phone call from Rose moments after this unexpected delivery told him to drop all other work and concentrate exclusively upon these new water sources. Jan was perplexed, but glad to have been offered such an intriguing exit from his current research cul-de-sac. “An undiscovered glacier?” Jan wondered, alone each night, probing this immaculate water with the towering nanoscope. “Deep ice from the Arctic? A new, highly classified means of purification? Synthetic water?” Jan dared to dream. Synthetic water: his generation’s holy grail; his generation’s lead-into-gold.
Though he had subtly, and then, having gleaned nothing, more directly, questioned Rose as to the water’s source, she remained flamboyantly secretive. Each time the subject was broached, a hand would shoot to the cherry-white dot by her eye and she would relish in parroting the mantra “it’s classified: strictly need-to-know basis only,” before striding away with the wind in her sails, reassured of her own position of power; being one of the golden few who ‘needed to know’.
So Jan had continued to examine, continued to speculate, continued to miss the last train home, and continued to sleep in the office, dreaming of early retirement and Maria.
He had submitted the results of the lab’s thorough, albeit unguided, examination of the unknown water at a highly secretive conference in the White House six weeks after the first water samples had come in. He’s been given four weeks by Rose in their initial conversation; he had fought for an extension to that time, hoping to uncover some information about the source of water. None had been forthcoming. The conference had had only seven audience members – more disconcerting to Jan than speaking to an audience of faceless thousands – sat in a horse-shoe shape around a table draped in a Royal blue velvet cloth, embossed with a gold insignia Jan didn’t recognise. The air was heavy and stale; Jan’s voice left his mouth and was instantly killed by the deadening and claustrophobic carpeted, sound insulated walls. Jan spoke for forty-five minutes. There were knowing looks among audience members – all presumably high powered, all unknown to Jan except Rose – every time Jan referred to the label of the bottles as “C, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk, nine, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk.” He deliberately repeated this laborious name each time to voice his displeasure at being kept out of the loop.
As he concluded that this water appeared to be pure, contaminant free and fit for human consumption, a ripple of murmurs shot around the room. He answered perfunctory questions for about fifteen minutes, then was ushered out of the room by Rose. He was back in his lab, dazed and wearing his only suit, by the afternoon. Two hours later, a new delivery of samples arrived at the lab. Three smaller silver tubes, each containing eight separate 1cm cubes of milky coloured ice. The three labels read:
C***** 9**** Sample~ 12a-12h 04/19/2284 (******* ice)
C***** 9**** Sample~ 13a-13h 04/19/2284 (******* ice)
C***** 9**** Sample~ 14a-14h 04/19/2284 (******* ice)
With even less knowledge as to the origins of these samples, and with the same numb acquiescence, Jan began again the process of becoming lost in the exploration of an alien, nanoscopic world.
* * *
Jan is bathed in an orange light from the sweltering street below. A small lamp lights a square of desk in front of him. He is hunched over a series of enhanced image capture pictures from the nanoscope display screen. Each is more intriguing and beautiful than the last. Perfect glistening bold blue marbles, golden arches of unknown sinew, scarlet rings and ridges. “One more look, then I’ll go to bed.”
Then, footsteps. Quiet, discrete, but determined. Jan’s heart quickens, muscles clench. He turns to see who is there, but the gloom that has grown unnoticed around him engulfs the lab and does not give up its secretive intruder. Jan stands. The footsteps soften, but retain their even pace; no hint of malice. A tall, slender figure picks its way through the clutter of work benches. Jan knows now who it is, though he doesn’t dare to allow himself to admit it. He’d never dreamed it could be.
Maria Cardenas’ features emerge from the darkness, still on a silent bee-line for Jan, who stands hypnotised and overawed by the unprecedented intrusion. He’s never seen Maria in the lab before. Though he had contrived as many opportunities to have their paths ‘coincidentally’ cross as possible, he could go a month sometimes without seeing her; two without speaking to her. He always called her Ms. Cardenas. She always called him Professor. On occasions he had made her smile. Once only, he made her laugh with some sarcastic remark in the canteen (‘coincidentally, they had both been there at the same time, even though there was a canteen much closer to Jan’s lab, and even though Maria was just getting a sandwich, having worked through lunch’). The sensation of having unlocked another trace of humanness in Maria by producing laughter was triumphal and haunting; staying with Jan for weeks afterwards.
Maria, now only metres away, still silently approaches the frozen Jan. Her cream coloured blouse, tight black pencil skirt and sleek, obsidian hair melding with the surrounding darkness, give her an almost phantasmagorical air of grace; a supernatural beauty. Her eyes, now close enough to see, are wide and glossed with a film of tears. A hint of redness around them is illuminated in the pale lamp light, confusing Jan further. Without words she kisses him with a force that would have knocked Jan to the floor, had her arms not pressed tightly against his ribcage, her forearms as vines climbing up his back, over his
lungs, to cradle the nape of his neck. At first paralysed by surprise, Jan eases into the kiss, hands becoming ever more daring as they trace lines from back to neck, from neck to waist, and from waist to hip. He drinks in the sensation, his whole body alive with electricity. Each time their tongues touch, another supernova of pent up energy explodes in him. Four years of assumed unrequited love demolished in a moment; a life time of solitude evaporated in a kiss.
* * *
Only once before had Jan approached intimacy with Maria. A Christmas party six months earlier. The end of an unremarkable night, Jan saw Maria slouched on a sofa. Immediately sobering up at the prospect of uninterrupted, and maybe uninhibited, conversation with her, he walked over, trying to maintain a shield of drunkenness, heart flitting.
The conversation at first had been clunky and sporadic, Jan had feared it would seize up and cease altogether, but Maria seemed relaxed and accommodating, in no mood to curtail the talk. A layer of her perpetual control and professional distance seemed to have been momentarily removed. They had ended up talking for hours. Jan had told her about his life in Oxford and his family trips to Northumberland. She had told him about her and her two sisters and her mother and her grandmother living together in a small apartment in Queens. Jan had, hesitatingly at first, but then with a warm surge of openness, told her of his sister’s death in the London riots. She had put a comforting hand upon his shoulder. It burned there with such radiance, Jan could barely stand it. Maria had told him of her mother’s stroke ten years ago and her elder sisters problems with a violent husband. Jan had brushed away a tear from her cheek. As they had left the party, she had squeezed him tightly and whispered “Merry Christmas,” then added quickly “thanks for listening”. How he had wanted then to invite her for dinner – or more immediately to his barren apartment. How he had wanted to pour out his soul to her; confess his love. But he had not. He had silently smiled. It had been another six weeks until he had seen her again. A fleeting glimpse in a corridor. She, with an apologetic shrug, hurrying to some pressing engagement, Jan left to wonder the warren of corridors aimlessly without the hope of a further ‘chance’ encounter.
* * *
After an eternity, Maria pulls her head away, their lips clinging to one another for a moment before parting. Tears are tracing rivulets down her cheeks; the redness of her eyes now more pronounced. “You’re so brave” she whispers in a wavering voice into Jan’s mouth.
“You’re so beautiful” comes Jan’s reply. Part of his mind winces at the crass reply, but it is submerged in the pulsating rhythm pounding through his entire body. “Beautiful” he repeats, and Maria chokes down a sob. Jab moves his head towards her for a second kiss, his hands eager to explore more uncharted territory. She leans in towards him and they kiss with more tenderness than passion. It’s a shorter kiss, and ends in a tight embrace, Maria’s sodden cheek pressed into Jan’s neck. The sheer unexpectedness and intense release of the moment has brought Jan to tears as well, and through lips heavy with saliva, he breaths “I love you”. Without moving her head, Maria replies “I know.”
Without further word, hand in hand, they move to Jan’s office, and to the sleeping bag laid out upon the floor.
* * *
Jan awoke to a sweltering sun pouring through the window. He awoke tired and naked and bleary eyed. And he woke alone. There was no sign of Maria, no sign that she had ever been there. She had been resting her head on the silver curls on Jan’s chest as he, unable to fight it any longer, had drifted into sleep. But now not even the intoxicating aroma of her perfume remained.
Dressing hurriedly, Jan peered through the closed blind partitioning his office from the main lab. It was already occupied by a couple of technicians. But Jan could not think about work. The haunting, tear-stained face of Maria Cardenas loomed large in his mind. No sooner had he resolved to go and find her, to profess his love for her, his thoughts were punctured by the bleep of an incoming video message. It was Rose. Demanding a meeting.
* * *
It was a meeting that hadn’t taken long. It hadn’t needed to take long, the outcomes having been decided and arranged before they were even introduced to Jan as options. He hadn’t said much. He hadn’t needed to. He hadn’t wanted to. All he could think about was the contours of Maria’s body; her spine, her hips, her breasts, her neck, the shimmering light in her glistening eyes. He felt no desire, no sexual excitement; just a yearning, a black hole growing within him, a sense of loss made all the more sharp by having had the experience of the night before; knowing instinctively, even before the death knell of the meeting, that there would be no repetition of the miraculous.
Rose and the two faceless colleagues flanking her informed Jan of the origin of the sample water. “A planetoid at the far reaches of the solar system which was believed to comprise of up to seventy percent ice – Chione 91168.” Jan was surprised, but nock shocked. In truth the revelation was somewhat anticlimactic; the impossible had already been achieved last night. All that was left now was the rest of his life.
“So how much ice did the probe bring back?” asked Jan, running his tongue along plaque-coated teeth, suddenly overcome with a desire to brush them thoroughly, to scrape them clean, to polish every tooth.
“Enough to ascertain its suitability for human consumption,” came the reply from Rose.
“But… there’s less than three litres of the stuff in my lab,” said Jan, running his hand through dishevelled hair, trying to second guess the purpose of this predetermined meeting. “What good is three litres of drinkable water?”
“It gives the first of our new fleet of space craft its first mission. Frankly we can’t believe how fortunate we are to get a target so close… relatively speaking, to home. It should only be a nine month round trip – four there, five back… with the extra weight… We’d initially anticipated the maiden voyage would be three or four times that length, so it’s really great news.”
It had taken some time for the full impact of Rose’s words to seep through to Jan. So much of his mind was occupied with visions of Maria that he had to spell it out even to himself. “You’re sending a… what? A space craft to… collect water from this planet?” the concept astounded him, “for us to drink?” A slow nod of the head was Rose’s only response. But this was not the only revelation to be made to Jan in this meeting.
After a brief interlude in which images of rockets and engines and zeppelin-esque ships and ice and fabulous machinery was paraded in front of his eyes, a more practical train of thought pulled into the station. “But… hold on… the tests I… we… the lab,” he composed himself and began again. “the experiments conducted by my laboratory, I do not believe, would be absolutely conclusive in determining whether this body of water would be fit for human consumption, given the extraterrestrial origin of the source. Had I been informed from the beginning as to the origins of the sample,” he shot a knowing look at Rose, who responded by tracing the outline of a patch of vitiligo, “I may have been able to factor in some more bespoke tests. As it stands… well… I can no longer conclusively say that this water is safe.”
The two faceless associates either side of Rose shot concerned looks at each other, but Rose stared straight back at Jan, her finger still slowly moving across the white plane on her cheek. “I realise that, Professor Caragee, and we have factored your… uncertainty into this mission… a mission which, I needn’t tell you, is of the utmost importance to the United North American Federation, its government and its citizens.”
Again, the crucial decision Jan was asked to make seemed to have been made already, and certainly was not open to refusal; it didn’t, in any real sense, need Jan to approve, or even be present as it was officially decided. He was to join the two men and Rose immediately, on a journey to a highly classified launch centre for basic training and briefing. He would be travelling on the colossal ship, already in orbit around the Earth, to the planetoid and would assume the role of chief scientist, charged with the responsibility of engaging in more detailed examination of the “target source.”
“It’s some gamble,” croaked Jan; the only response he could think to make, “what if we get there, and the water’s no good?” The simplicity of the question belied the serious reservation – scientific, logistical and moral – that were already beginning to compile themselves into a hefty list in Jan’s cluttered head.
“We have confidence in the intel we have,” said Rose, flatly, “it’s a risk we’re willing to take.”
* * *
As the ‘Nu-Steam’ bullet car powered across unending desert, Jan once more thought of Maria; certain now that he would never see her again. “She said I was brave. She must have known about the mission, known I was commissioned to go, thought I knew I was going. What would they do if I said I wouldn’t go? Probably drug me and bundle me into storage. What would Maria do? Would she be relieved I didn’t go, or disappointed that I was far from brave?” But the questions were all moot. He knew he would be aboard the ship – the ‘Aspidochelone’ – in a matter of weeks. But the regret. “Four years… no, closer to five. Five years I had waited for… something I thought was impossible to grasp… now… the regret… the regret.”
* * *
“The regret.” Jan’s eyes were so clouded with tears that it was several minutes before he noticed the minute silver dot floating serenely in the top left hand corner of the nanoscope display screen. Even when he did see it, he longed to be sucked back into the blissful burden of remembrance; the harrowing pleasure of thinking about ‘what might have been’. All this time – this whole insane mission – Jan had been terrified of the encroachment of these unconscious acts of remembrance; he had forced them away in his urge to exist only in the mundanity of this spectacular present. But the memories – of youth, of family, of loss, of her – had forced themselves back, often confused and confusingly, upon him and demanded to be remembered against their owner’s will. Yet now, in the white-hot heat of momentous discovery, Jan willed back this dead-end world where the path chosen is all too known, and impossible to stray from, and the path desired is all too easy to imagine, but impossible to tread.
But the silver dot was a beacon to Jan, pulling him into the moment, forcing him to zoom in, to inspect. He magnified the dot as close as he could bear, drying his eyes with the back of his hand, each multiplication revealing another terrifying layer of detail on this esoteric being, each potential suggested discovery providing less and less comprehension of the whole. This time, the creature – for this, though the word was inadequate, was undeniably what it was – remained perfectly still, though not motionless. In his head initially, then out loud, Jan began to describe what he could see, though conventional words often fell short. Was it ‘alive’ in the conventional, ‘Earth’ sense? It seemed to be. Was it an ‘animal’ – the term was a more spurious description. “Are they… fins… of some kind?” Jan asked himself – the prospect of an internal answer hopeless – of the vibrating edges of the silver being, strobing silver, then electric blue, then transparent. The thing moved slightly forward; three darker patches revealing themselves at what Jan presumed must be the front. “Eyes? Has it eyes? Would it need them in the depths of the water of Chione? Surely not. Some sort of sensory patches might make sense? But would they in an entirely liquid, sub-atomic world?” Jan was half-thinking, half whispering, his knees shaking and mouth dry. “What size is it?” Jan had no way of knowing, there was no comparable landmark on the screen to discern size. With eyes still transfixed by the creature, Jan zoomed out the Earth control side of the nanoscope display until a single atom was visible, taking up the entire right hand side of the screen. It dwarfed the creature on the left, even at 10x less magnitude, by an hundred times at least. “Beautiful creature,” was all Jan could think, the tears welling once more in his eyes.
A loud knock at the door violently interrupted the silence of the discovery. It startled Jan, and he leapt backwards, yelping. The door opened, and technician Demba, presumably taking the yelp for a recognition and command to enter, came in carrying three black canisters with yellow writing. “The… liquid samples… Professor,” Demba ventured in a deep voice. It was all Jan could do to nod and point, hand shaking, at the desk. Demba nodded in understanding and placed the objects on the desk.
As he turned to leave, Jan managed to speak. “Technician,” he called, urgency flooding his voice, “Technician. You have to take a message back to captain Maddox and Rose… err… Ms Collins from me… as … as a matter of great urgency.” Demba turned fully to face Jan, his eyes wide with anticipation. “Tell them… inform the… to cease the preparations for drilling immediately… they must not extract any water from Chione. Tell them I will meet them in Captain Maddox’s quarters in an hour and a half.”
“You’d better have a damn good reason for telling me what to do on my own ship, Caragee. Especially when what you’re telling me to do is to cease the whole mission!” Captain Maddox was waiting for Jan in the transport alcove, furious purple bags under pin-hole eyes, his stubble appearing to have grown even more in the three hours since Jan saw him last. It was clear from this venomous opening gambit that the Captain was not going to make this easy.
“Have you stopped drill prep?” asked Jan urgently, whilst clambering unceremoniously from the transport pod.
“Hell no!” the Captain fairly shouted at Jan, “the drill-straw is prepped and ready to go, as is the ‘Asp’s’ container. The drill-straw has begun its descent to the surface of the target.”
“Have you begun drilling?”
A deathly silence from the Captain in which pin-hole eyes burned with malice. “No. Rose insisted we wait for you and your little speech.” Maddox moved in close to Jan. He had clearly continued drinking and his hot breath rained droplets of whiskey upon Jan’s cheek. “One touch of a button is all it’s going to take, and we begin sucking that planet dry.”
“Just give me ten minutes,” implored Jan.
* * *
Rose sat in the same chair as before, perched with straight back, hands resting in lap. “Has she continued drinking, too?” wondered Jan, though Rose’s first words reassured him that he would have something of a more receptive audience in her than he would in Maddox. Rose stood to greet the two men, holding her hand out to greet Jan, unnecessarily. “Professor, have you identified the trace contaminant? What have you found?”
“There is no contaminant, Rose. The water is as pure and safe as we previously believed; better than almost all water back on Earth,” said Jan, moving to his own seat. Rose shifted on her feet as though a physical weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Spotting the relaxation, Jan added, “however,” leaving the powerful word to hand in the air as he sat with a flourish. Though the moment was of grave significance, Jan was so assured of the astounding revelation he was about to deliver, that he couldn’t help but revel in the moment. “I believe that once you have heard what I have to say, you will agree that we cannot, that we must not, touch the water in Chione 91168; certainly we much not drain it for our consumption on Earth.”
“Oh, spare us the theatrics, old man,” spat Maddox, leaning against the back wall, a fresh glass of amber whiskey in his hand – none offered to his two guests this time – “let’s cut to the chase, my men are waiting to start drilling out there.”
Jan closed his eyes and took a ‘Deep Breath’. On the shuttle ride over, he had promised himself that he would remain calm, dispassionate and every inch the scientific professional, despite how Maddox riled him; it would be the only way to win this argument. Yet, once more, Rose came to his aid against Maddox’s tirade. “Captain,” she snapped, “you promised to hear the Professor out.”
“Well I would if he’d start talking,” the Captain said in petulant retort.
“OK,” began Jan, arranging the hand-written data he had with him. “Some three days or so before the deceleration commenced, I was conducting some fairly routine experiments upon the ice sample from Chione.”
“Oh well, glad you were doing something productive in your time kicking around this tin can alone!”
“Daniel! Let him speak.”
“Thank you, Rose. As I was saying. Though the tests were fairly routine, I began to operate the nanoscope at a vastly increased magnitude – much higher than I ever thought useful in our tests back in Washington. At this increased magnitude, I believed I saw something… moving… within the water. Now, I realise that what I am saying may sound deliberately convoluted,” a snort from Captain Maddox. A piercing glare from Rose, “but believe me, I am trying to describe quite unprecedented and unusual findings in as accurate a manner as possible. I say moving within the water as opposed to moving through the water, because at the magnification I was operating at, there was no discernable presence of water at all it was… well, sub-atomic certainly. At first I was, I freely admit, terrified of this finding, but I have, as of just now, confirmed and enhanced my understanding of this earlier phenomenon. Captain, may I use your display screen, please?” A reluctant nod from the Captain who, with effort, pushed himself from the wall on which he had been leaning and pressed two buttons by the door frame simultaneously. The room darkened and a rectangle of deep blue began to glow on the wall where the captain had been leaning. Jan placed a data dot in the corner of the screen, and dragged the first video image into the centre of the screen. “Rose… Captain Maddox… this is a video capture of a sample of Chione water seen at the increased magnitude through the nanoscope display taken not two hour ago. It shows what I believe… what I strongly believe to be… the first recorded example of…” Jan paused to swallow, “extra-terrestrial life. There is life… life in the waters of Chione 91168.” Rose gasped, bringing one hand to her mouth, the other to the patch by her left eye. Maddox slammed his whiskey glass down onto the table and turned away from the screen. Jan knew he had struck a powerful opening blow, but he also knew that he needed to back it up further; he knew the captain’s mind – though inebriated – was already working out a ways to counteract the significance of this discovery. Jan allowed a moment for the image of the lone sliver being flashing and rippling amid these alien atoms to radiate its devastating majesty upon its audience. With solemnity, Jan dragged the next video into the centre of the screen.
“This video… shows the same magnification of a sample of liquid water from Chione 91168, handed to me by technician Demba an hour and a half ago. I have not been able to study this sample in any depth yet, but I think it speaks for itself…” Jan’s voice trailed off as even he became lost once more in the mesmerising minutiae of bustling life shown on the screen. Where on the sample of Chione ice, there had been one solitary silver dot floating serenely in the spaces between matter, here in the liquid water, there was a tumult of movement. Thousands – uncountable numbers of individual beings rippled, moved, merged, re-emerged, divided, conjoined, separated, vanished, reappeared, shimmered, darted, vibrated and played in the gaps between the physical world.
Rose continued to cover her mouth and stare at the screen; Maddox leant against the wall, facing the opposite direction, muttering something under his breath. Jan cleared his throat and continued.
“As I said, I have only been able to conduct very preliminary tests on this sample, but I think I may have already been able to distinguish between at least three types of… creature…. within this sample alone… although as yet I have no idea whether they represent different species or different stages in a life cycle or…”” Jan suddenly sprung into an animated state, “or if any of these categories are even applicable… God! There’s so much to uncover here; enough to keep the scientific community guessing for generations. Look, I’m sure I don’t need to… wax lyrical about the potential of this discovery, nor do I need to sensationalise its importance. I will just say this; this mission, in failing to obtain a viable source of drinking water has made perhaps the most important discovery in the history of scientific endeavour: we have discovered the first extraterrestrial life forms… alien life. Now, I know that this is a lot to take in; I admit I am still struggling with the concept myself it’s… it’s almost unbelievable… but it is an irrefutable fact, and it is one which we now have to deal with. I will try to answer any questions either of you may have, but again I say, I have only begun to scratch the surface with this.”
There followed a hallowed calm after Jan’s final words, in which even Captain Maddox turned his head to gaze at the screen. After some time, Rose’s fingers parted to allow her to speak, though her hand remained clasped to her face. In a voice that sounded drained of all life, she asked, “what is the size of the area we’re seeing on the screen?”
Jan ruffled the papers he held, scrawled, one line notes mainly, illegible mostly, but he felt he had to be carrying something. “The area here is approximately one femtometre square.”
“Sorry… how big?” asked Rose, more tired than quizzical.
“Yes… erm a femtometre; ten to the minus fifteen metres… so it’s really an incredibly small area that we are looking at.”
“How small, Professor?” continued Rose, a hint of frustration creeping into her voice. Unperturbed, Jan replied in as calm and measured a manner as he could muster; he knew now was when he would win this argument over whether to drain Chione or not, and he had to make this discovery as monumental to Rose and Maddox as it was to him. “Right… well it’s approximately the size of the radius of a hydrogen nucleus… not an atom… the nucleus. And… and within that… minute space… there are… well… several hundred… beings. I mean when you think about the volume of water out there… I mean there could conceivably… well, not conceivably, because the thought is inconceivable, but there could be more of these creatures out there in Chione 91168 than there are constituent atoms in the Earth!” He let this last sensationalist headline hang in the air too. He was not usually one for overblown hyperbole when it came to presenting scientific findings; but he had never found something so sensational before, and he had never had to convince an audience so demanding of it. He had not done the required calculations to say with any certainty how many creatures could be living within Chione, and the last thing he would usually do is compare the amount to something. He thought back to childhood books that would compare dinosaur sizes to buildings and double-decker busses. Even as a small boy, these glib comparisons has irked him. “But there weren’t any busses when the dinosaurs were alive, were there dad?” he once asked his father, tucked up in bed one balmy night. He’d meant it as the prelude to a serious question about why they always measure dinosaur that way, but his dad had just chuckled, ruffled his hair, and told him not to let the bed bugs bite.
So much of what he had said of these creatures to Rose and Maddox, even in this short presentation, was impossible to know. He couldn’t say with an absolute conviction that these things were even ‘alive’ in any classical sense of the word. Do they eat, and if so what?? Do they reproduce, and if so how? Do they interact with one another? All these question Jan had no hope of providing definitive answers to. But now was not the time for definitives. Now was the time for sound bites and fanfares and startling, eye-catching images; devices all to try and arrest attention, save this newly-discovered, newly-endangered species and help demonstrate the magnitude of these miniscule creatures to his layman audience. The effect seemed to have captured Rose. But Maddox, turned now fully to face the screen with apparent interest, seemed to have taken on board the information to serve a different purpose, for now a fire smouldered in his pin-hole eyes, waiting to ignite and burn Jan’s carefully constructed argument to the ground.
“So,” began Maddox, laboriously selecting each word, “these… things are… sub-atomic, I guess you’d say?”
“Absolutely,” replied an animated Jan, eager to convert this most recalcitrant philistine.
“So, smaller than any life we’ve got back on Earth?” said Maddox, with all the care of a chess master playing a decisive move. Jan did not heed the trap.
“Oh, much! Much smaller than anything discovered on Earth. I’ll give you an example. The… the nanobes discovered nearly… three hundred years ago in rocks under the sea bed… well they measure around… twenty nanometres, I think.” Jan again left the punch line to make its own impact, but this time it failed to hit quite as resoundingly. He expanded, with the anticlimactic tones of someone having to explain why the joke they have just told is funny. “So… OK… a nanometre is ten to the power minus nine, right, and a nanobe from Earth measures twenty nanometres. Well, we’re looking at an area here,” he pointed to the screen with vigour, “… an area of one femtometre – ten to the minus fifteen. That means one nanometre is one million femtometres. We’re looking at one femtometre, and there are literally hundreds of these little things!”
Maddox did not seem impressed – and certainly not won over. He just leaned against the wall smiling, the crystal tumbler in his hand long drained of whiskey. Quietly, he spoke. “So if they are smaller than any living thing on Earth – much smaller – impossibly small – and even the nanobes, I think I’m right in saying, Professor, aren’t considered to be alive in the proper sense of the word by many scientists, then how can you say with such certainty that these things are alive?” The decisive chess piece put in place. Check.
Jan paused before answering, exploring the sanguine face of Captain Daniel Maddox; the apparently placid lake that contained within who knows what monsters of attrition, seeking to wither away Jan’s confidence, his defences and his argument; make light of this historic finding.
“Well firstly, Captain, these beings are not impossibly small, because, as you can plainly see upon the screen, they exist. However improbable, however devastating to the mission… they exist. Secondly, they appear to have some form of self-propulsion. There appears to be some decision made as to direction of movement, and some form of interaction between individuals… so I would hypothesise – strongly – that these are indeed living creatures.” Jan was out on something of a limb here. He had no conclusive evidence for any of the suppositions he had made; he had only gazed upon this bustling micro-metropolis for an hour or so more than either Rose or Maddox. He was by no means an expert on any of the features he had described, and he was certainly not in possession of facts. But he had to present the known to Maddox, for the captain had ulterior motives in mind. Jan repeated, “I would strongly suggest that these creatures are alive.”
“But you don’t know, do you Prof?”
“You’ve picked a fine time for a battle over semantics, Captain!” Jan could feel the frustration swell within him. How could one person be so stubborn in the face of such a momentous paradigm shift?
“But you don’t,” came Maddox’s measured reply. “Do they fulfil all the criteria for life as modern science would define it? Can you say for absolute certain that they do? What species are they? Where do they fit in the tree of life? You don’t know anything about them, do you?”
“Well they are extraterrestrial life, Captain; I wouldn’t expect them to nestle snugly into our parochial definitions of life. If anything, these beings will force us to change our minds about what constitutes life; that’s how science works, Captain; discoveries change theories, not the other way around. I would not expect for a moment that these beings would share entirely the characteristics of life on Earth, for they have evolved in entirely different climates.” Jan was struggling to restrain himself against this onslaught of deliberate misinterpretation of the world. He could feel himself being dragged in by Maddox’s tide of competitiveness. Jan knew that if this became a shouting match – a competition between two men – rather than a measured examination of the facts, not only would he lose, but the consequences for the living planetoid Chione would be devastating. Jan closed his eyes and tried to compose himself. “As for a species… we may well be looking at an entirely separate branch on your so-called tree of life; a totally different tree, as it were. Indeed, it would surprise me more if we were not.”
“You know what they look like to me?” said Maddox, an antagonistic smile spreading live a ravine through the steel-blue forest of stubble. “A virus!”
“Oh how scientific of you!” Jan snapped sarcastically.
“Yeah, a virus! Don’t tell me you hadn’t thought the same, old man. What if these… things are a virus? Who knows what harm they could do?”
“All the more reason not to bring then back to Earth as fucking drinking water then!” shouted Jan, losing his cool at the inane fear mongering of Maddox.
“All the more reason to put them all in the Asp’s water contained and superheat them; kill them all off before they can do any harm, and continue with the mission,” Maddox bellowed back, his shout much more intimidating that Jan’s. He began to advance towards Jan. Rose sprang from her chair, standing between the two, holding an outstretched arm to Maddox. “Gentlemen, please! Both of you sit down. Now. Professor Caragee has come to us with a… staggering piece of evidence, but Captain Maddox has a point. We need to factor in the importance of this mission to life on Earth before we make any decision.”
“Any decision?” said Jan, aghast. “Do you realise what he’s proposing? Genocide. Specicide. The absolute destruction of the only extraterrestrial life we have ever encountered… and for what? Twenty more years of swimming pools and cocktails in the UNAF?”
“Oh, get off your high horse and join us in the real world, Caragee,” Maddox spat with distilled venom, “we’re not talking about genocide; we’re talking about water purification. Water that can be used for humans! Remember them?!”
“Look, Jan,” interjected Rose, once more attempting to diffuse the situation, “perhaps you are unaware of quite how serious the situation back home is regarding water. Official projections of water supplies released by the President are… myths, really; a fabrication to reassure the public, buy us a little time and win the President a second term in office. In truth, the President plans to implement radical austerity rationing immediately following the election, reducing by half the daily water ration for all UNAF citizens. Now, even on these new drastic rations, projections show the supply of water from the uncontaminated Great lakes will run out in little over a year and… all available water in just over two. After that… who knows. Many of the more hawkish military advisors have strongly advocated… strategic invasion of one or more of the South American Conglomerates. There’s even talk of annexing the Mediterranean regions of the EU and North African Islamic State, and forming another salt-water lake to purify. So when I say that the investment in this mission is not just monetary, you will appreciate what I mean. We need to think very carefully about the ramifications if this mission fails.”
“It has already failed!” roared Jan, the frustration cascading from him. “We have discovered life… we cannot, in all good conscience, set about destroying it; we must preserve it.”
“Even at the cost of killing ourselves?” Maddox sat stony-faced; a deathly grey pall had washed across him. “These… microbes or whatever they are… So they’ll keep a few silver-haired, frazzled old men amused for a while. Meanwhile, there’s a global war raging outside because no one can get a drink of water? Come on, prof. If it comes down to us or… them – and we don’t even know what they are, whether they are even alive – it has to be us; every time! Now I’m tired of this argument. Let’s fire up the drill-straw and come home as heroes.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” was the only reply Jan could muster, a nausea building in the pit of his stomach. So sure had he been that the revelation of life would be enough to stop the wanton destruction – even in Maddox – that he felt the drill-straw was beginning to suck some life-essence directly from within him.
“Now hold on, Daniel.” Rose again cast in the role of mediator. “Professor. Have you any evidence to suggest… intelligence… or even sentience… in these things?”
“Intelligence!” scoffed Maddox. “You could fit a million of these little bastards inside a single atom, and she’s talking about intelligence! Come on, prof, Have you had any good conversations with them? Have they read any good book?”
“Daniel, please. Professor…”
“Due to their size, any suggestion of intelligence as so glibly defined by the Captain is obviously out of the question. As for sentience… who knows… they clearly have some form of motor function, clearly navigate their way through a crowded micro-landscape. I have, in my brief observations, seen evidence of interaction between individuals. All of these things would point towards some level of sentience, yes. But we don’t know… I must stress that. But just because we don’t know does not give us an excuse to annihilate the chance to find out. For all we know, there could be some form of collective consciousness.” Jan picked himself up at this on-the-spot hypothesis. His mind turned to Isaac Pitts. How he would have loved to have shared this discovery with the thorny old radical, now decades deceased. “Some of the individual movement and interactions are without clear explanation. It appears as though individual beings can… well, meld, or vanish within each other, for want of much more accurate words. Who’s to say that they don’t form some sort of singular entity? Who’s… Who’s to say that the entire planet isn’t some sort of living being, comprised of this infinite swarm of creatures?” But Jan’s last wild speculation was drowned in an explosion of laughter from the Captain. Maddox flung himself back into his seat, rocking theatrically, his prominent Adam’s apple throbbing in derisory delight.
“Oh fantastic!” Maddox gasped through bouts of venomous laughter. “He’s found it at last; living water. I wondered how long it would take us to get to this!” Suddenly the laughter stopped, and Maddox hissed his words with an aggression that genuinely frightened Jan. “You listen here, you tired old fuck. Playing around with drops of water, making up childish bullshit, saying that we should all love one another and share and look after everything in nature, and that nature is in perfect harmony and everything is part of God’s creation; all of that is well and good when you have food in your belly and time on your hands,” Maddox stared at Jan with unblinking eyes; Jan, for his part, was incapable of looking away; he could feel the drill boring into him, “but we are in a fucking hole here, and we need to dig ourselves out! Now if I need to tread on a few anthills or burn a few trees to save us – us; humanity – from a terminal crisis, then I will not hesitate to do so, and no crusty old, out of touch, academic is ever going to convince me otherwise.”
With that, Maddox rose from his seat, marched to the door, pressed a small silver button below a grill and began to speak. “Technician Demba, we have a green light to commence drilling. Fire up the drill-straw and commence system checks, please.” There was no reply from the small grill, and Maddox didn’t wait for one, marching back over to the desk, picking up the whiskey decanter, now almost empty, and swigging directly from the ornate cut-glass, streams of the liquid spilling out around his mouth and down chiselled jaw.
Jan tried to stand, but he felt thoroughly drained. He turned to Rose, who was nodding mournfully; looking at Jan as though he were a coffin being lowered into a grave. “I’m sorry, Jan,” she cooed, “but the mission is top priority. There’s nothing we can do.” Through the closing fog that was dulling all senses, Jan heard a ghastly whining from below his feet joining the perpetual hum of the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ engines. He felt a stabbing terror in the pit of his stomach, but everything else was hazing out of existence, his vision blurred, the air heavy. He was swimming through the air. Swimming.
* * *
Jan is swimming. Swimming in pitch black waters. Engulfed. Enveloped. Ensconced. The cooling waters flood his lungs, massage his skin, breath life and love and knowledge and understanding into every fibre of his being. He is a part of the whole. He can feel each individual atom of himself, moving in unison. He can feel himself within each atom, defiant, individual citadels. He is moving in the water, around the water, within the water. The water is moving him, moving around him, moving in him. The water is him. He is the water. The two are inseparable. Living water.
Parts of him disperse and dissolve. Now he is everywhere at once. Waves of thought bounce around; always-already known, they rebound and meet and meld. Parts of him glide to the outer limit of himself; to the glassy, blue shell that divides him from the vacuum. He sees a dark mass with bright burning eyes attaching itself to him with steel umbilical cord. Parts of him hear noise; felt as a shuddering vibration fracturing his shell and penetrating, permeating; sullying still waters and raining down anguish and loss. Parts of him scream. Parts of him swim. Parts divide. Parts cling to one another and embrace ‘till dying embers are extinguished. Parts of him succumb to this invasive force; offer themselves up to slake the unquenchable thirst. Parts of him, in ever-growing numbers, are vacuumed into the belly of the beast. All of him weeps. All of him weeps as all of him dies.
From the serene darkness of his own confines, to the oppressive darkness of the hollow hull, Jan in myriad parts huddles against himself; wide-eyed in the terror of not knowing. The noise is deafening, the vibration unholy, the incessant destruction unrelenting.
Wrenched from himself, wrenched from the unifying waters of home, Jan considers the end.
“… and I told you that, but it’s the best we can do so… he’s waking up… right now… I’m here, aren’t I? I’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so… OK, bye. Now how do I turn it… off? There!” Rose turned from the messaging unit in the corner of Jan’s grey room, and perched herself on the corner of his bed, bolt upright and bird-like.
“The water,” Jan croaked. He felt distant; from his own body, from the room, from the current situation as the recollection of it came flooding back to him in tidal waves of desperation. “The water.”
“It’s done, Jan. It’s already done. You had… and episode… back in Captain Maddox’s office… we had to sedate you.” Tears welled in Rose’s eyes. “It was… I was scared, Jan. You were throwing things, screaming. You broke Maddox’s nose.” Even in the mire of desolation, this piece of news shone through and brought a smile to Jan’s lips.
“I brought you back to your quarters, and you sat in the Ersatzrain for hours… do you remember?”
Jan shook his head and tried to lift himself to a sitting position. His arms burned with the effort and his head swan in a current of nausea. “But the water, Rose. Chione. Is it safe?”
Tears welled again in Rose’s eyes, her hand stroking the larger patch of cherry-white on her jaw. “Jan… it’s done. The drill-straw was retracted about two hours ago… the cargo is aboard now.”
“Can’t we compromise, Rose,” pleaded Jan through parched lips; his tongue a desert, “take half, leave half… please, Rose.”
“Not possible, Jan. I told you we didn’t come here for just a sip. Besides, when the drill-straw was retracted, the shell of ice splintered and collapsed. There’s nothing there now.”
Silently, Jan Caragee wept.
“Why didn’t you tell us sooner, Jan. Wake us up early from S.A.? Tell us the first moment you saw us on the bridge? Maybe if we’d known sooner…” Her words trailed off. Would it have made a difference? There was little point even speculating now; certainly no point rubbing salt into the wound.
“Because I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure of anything. Of my present, my past, of what was real and what was hallucination… Rose, I’d been up here alone so long… I was getting these… not flashbacks as such, but… unwanted… uncalled memories that would,,, burst into my waking life, puncture the present and force me into the past; forced me to remember.”
Rose smiled a sad smile. “That’s very Proustian of you, Professor. I’m afraid I don’t have any Madeleine cakes to help you get back there. We just have to deal with this present situation now.”
“Oh, Rose. If only I hadn’t been alone all this time. If I’d had someone to share this discovery with, to talk to, I’d have been surer; we could have stopped Maddox and saved…”
“Well, you know you’re going to be welcomed back to Earth as a hero. The bringer of water! Nobel prizes, lectures; you’ll be a rich man. A very rich man. You could set up your own research facility. You could start your own University with the money you’re going to get!”
Maria sprang into Jan’s mind. Would she welcome back the hero? The intrepid explorer; hunter-gatherer? What would she think when he told her what they had done; and he would have to, sooner or later? The destroyer of worlds, the assassin; genocide and greed.
“I’m tired,” Jan lied. He wanted now to be alone with the memory of Maria – alone with all his memories. He would embrace them now; find some solace in them. He lay back down and closed his eyes; opening them to the world of Maria and memory.
“Of course… there’s just… I have to talk to you about one last thing.”
Jan opened his eyes reluctantly, turning his head to Rose. “What is it?”
“OK… this isn’t going to be easy to hear, but it needs to be said, and I hope you understand… The crew and I will be going back into S.A. for the return trip and, of course, for health reasons you will have to stay out here… alone.”
“Rose; its fine… I’ll be fine. I’m not afraid of that now.”
“No… that’s not it.” Rose was clearly uncomfortable now. “The superheating of water in the hull went without a hitch… however… the sample waters in your lab…” she trailed off at the sight of Jan’s face contorted in horror.
“No,” gasped Jan, “No, please don’t”
“Oh, we won’t… you have to. Jan please,” Rose attempted to gloss over Jan’s weakened protestations, “you know you have to. If the general public found out that this water may have contained microscopic… alien life”
“It did contain alien life… and you killed it!”
“If they found out, it could cause widespread panic. We need you to destroy the specimens. Superheat them if possible; it would greatly help us in determining how successful the large-scale superheating has been; for some reason we have been unable to obtain a sample from the hull, I think there is some issue with the mechanism.” She paused to ruminate on this point before trying again to console the mortified old man in the bed in front of her. “Jan… you’ll have five months to experiment on the samples, find out what you can… just as long as the specimens are… taken care of before we enter orbit around Earth.”
“What’s the point in experimenting on a doomed species? No one will ever be able to read my research; no one will ever validate it.”
“Obviously not straight away no, but… in time, who knows? Even the most classified of government documents gets declassified eventually. The world will one day recognise Professor Jan Caragee as the discovered of extraterrestrial life.” Rose made this last proclamation as if speaking to a senile patient in her begrudging care.
“Quite. And one day, the world will recognise Rose Collins as the murderer of that extraterrestrial life!” came Jan’s retort. “I refuse to be complicit in this genocide.”
With an expressionless face, Rose lay down the ultimatum. “Either you get five months experimentation time, free to do whatever you want at the end of which you comply with our demands, or I sedate you so heavily you might not ever wake up, and I pour those meagre drops of water in your lab back in with the rest of the tank. It really is up to you, Professor.”
“Fuck you, Rose.”
“The former then. Good choice, Professor.” Rose stood and walked to the door. As she strode through, she turned back to the figure of impotent rage lying in bed. “When you get back to earth, and you see the difference this water makes, you’ll thank me for making this decision… you’ll see that it was the right thing to do.” But Jan had already switched himself off from the present. He was back in his family’s car, navigating the bucolic Northumberland coast line.
Sat cross-legged on quivering floor, Jan Caragee reached above his head and, without looking turned off the Ersatzrain™ machine.
* * *
Powering through the enclosing tunnel, encased in the familiar colours of the transport pod, light illuminating to show the journey made, pod rumbling on towards its inevitable conclusion, Jan closed his eyes and saw the yellowing hedgerows on the road to Budle Bay, smelt the perfume of the buddleia by the river Isis, heard his sister laughing in the sand dunes.
* * *
Jan looked down the unending corridor which dissolved into an indistinct grey-white haze in the distance. This five month stint of solitude had passed without even. The foreboding replaced by a serene nothingness; fear by calm resignation. Jan placed his thumb in the door’s ident. lock, and with a small click, it opened.
* * *
The lab is home now; no longer a place of uncertainty, but of productivity and exploration. Jan turned the natural light dimmer switch three-quarters of a circle clockwise: the burning beginnings of a sun set; ribbons of crisp pinks and radiant oranges, the merest hint of a watery blue encroaching from above, promising the succour of night, and with it sleep.
* * *
Jan slouched down in the old deep green Chesterfield armchair. Their relationship reconciled, the armchair had become a place of nurture. He looked around the lab; the cluttered work bench, the overgrowing plants, the imposing hulk of the nanoscope. But always on the periphery of his vision, the refrigeration unit. The unassuming white mausoleum: the water bearer. Each splendid day that passed was a day closer to Jan’s own inescapable fate; the day he would become complicit in the crime he had fought with every fibre to prevent. But each splendid day came, and he met each with work and ideas and hope. He didn’t need to forcefully repress the fear at having to complete his hideous task, for it found itself crushed under the weight of ideas springing forth from Jan’s liberated mind.
He picked up the dog-eared manuscript, indicative of his archaic preference for writing by hand, and read through the final few pages, smiling at the flourishes of his own unhampered purple prose. He closed the book, and on the front wrote: “And Not a Drop to Drink: On the Beginnings of Mankind’s ‘Quest’ For Extraterrestrial Water.” Captain Maddox had been right about one thing; the subject had provided enough material for a book. He held out the book at arm’s length, then brought it back to the table and hurriedly scrawled “by Jan Caragee” at the bottom. After another moment’s examination, he added the word “Professor”. He placed this weighty tome on top of the other three, all written in this five month period. In a moment of self-congratulation, he fanned the four manuscripts out across the small, ornate wooden table (another of his eccentric ‘space incongruities’) and read the titles. There was his now finally finished book “In Ever Decreasing Pools: The Political Influence and Geographical Routes of Water 2100- Present.” He would need to check a couple of dates, add in a few more contemporary sources, but he felt it was what he had always hoped it would be; his magnum opus. The next notebook down was emblazoned with the title “Isaac Pitts: A Biography and Re-examination of ‘On Water’.” It was part an attempt at canonisation of the sagely but almost forgotten academic, part policy manifesto for the future. Jan, in his new lake of optimism, felt sure his opinions on future aquatic endeavours would be sought, and he felt it was now his mission to bring back to the fore the work of Pitts. The final work was little more than a loose bundle of scrap paper. On the front page read one word, standing defiant and alone: “Diary.” Jan turned to the front page and read.
* * *
“I imagine no one will read these words; no one will be allowed to read these words, at least not until long after I and everyone mentioned herein is dead. If however, dead reader, you find yourself able to read this work unencumbered and uncensored, it will become quickly apparent as to why I feared this work would never see the light of day! Discoveries were made upon this maiden voyage to pillage the stars; discoveries that placed our contemporary plight into a new context that rendered them infinitesimally small and unimportant. But the crew of this mission aboard the UNAF ‘Aspidochelone’ – and I include myself in that infamous list, not for what, as I write these words, I have done, but what I have yet to do – buried those discoveries under an avalanche of fear and greed and the blinkered belief that we were helping to save humanity. Whether our actions prove to help preserve humanity, or serve as a brief stay of execution to one specific conglomerate nation, remains to be seen; at this point I neither know nor care what will happen next. So I write this account of the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ voyage not to uncover some sensationalist truth, not to exonerate myself from blame, but to detail perhaps the most prescient point for humanity’s future: that as out insatiable thirst pushes us farther and farther afield, we will be met by more and more evidence that will force us to question our assumed position as masters of all we survey, and our divine right to imbibe every morsel we discover without thought for the consequences. I hope we may reach a tipping point before was as a species are expunged from existence.
The life forms we found in the waters of Chione 91168 – and after five months of protracted examination, I am certain beyond any doubt that it was life that we found, albeit a new, esoteric definition thereof – were subatomic creatures. Their exact characteristics, their level of sentience, their life cycle, their
interactions etc I can still only speculate upon; certainly these points and numerous others would have kept all branches of science (not to mention religion and philosophy) enthralled for decades to come, and may have revealed untold insights into our own existence and the existence of and conditions for life throughout the universe. However, all this will remain unknown until another potential contact is established in the future. Knowledge of these creatures of Chione certainly is lost to us forever, as are the beings themselves, for we swept aside this monumental finding with apparently little anguish. Once more we favoured immediate gratification at the cost of future advance. I fear that the longer we continue to do so, the greater and more catastrophic will be our downfall. What if next time the ‘aliens’ are capable of resisting? What if they come to our planet for plunder? Will we accept their advances as ‘natural’ evolution; survival of the fittest?
So in this diary, I present my viewpoint – as biased as it is – springing from the well of a wounded man. I expect no sympathy, for I am sure I will receive none; I deserve none. And even if revisionists in the future (if they ever do get to read this work), will apologise on my behalf long after I am cold in the ground, so it will do this retched body no good!”
* * *
With a leaden heart, Jan thumbed through the hundreds of pages to the final page. Picking up a pen, he wrote there “Now I must complete the task thrust upon me. I must complete the genocide of the Chione species, though in the process so too my soul will die.” He arranged the four hand-written books neatly upon the table, the pen resting beside them. With effort, he pushed himself out of the warm confines of cracked green leather, and was compelled towards the clinical white of the work bench. As if a marionette, manipulated by unseen hands, Jan opened the door to the refrigeration unit and removed the three black canisters individually, placing them on the counter. The things weighed heavy in his hands. Jan was suddenly overcome by a profound weariness, a dull ache spreading throughout his body. He longed to return to the chair; to write and dream and remember. But mechanically he persisted, pouring the contents of the three cylinders – all five litres or so; the final unspoilt remnants of the once mighty planetoid – into a large beaker, and with excessive care and great physical effort, carried it to the modest sized heating chamber. The vessel barely fit in the chamber; Jan had perhaps unconsciously thought it wouldn’t, providing one last delay to the execution. The door closed; fate sealed. Jan had only operated the heat chamber once or twice, and then only as part of some absent-minded, pseudo-experimentational tinkering in those barren months of the outbound journey.
Jan had been left explicit instruction as to the temperature and duration necessary to replicate conditions in the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ gargantuan cargo hold. He was to superheat this water for exactly twelve minutes, then flash-freeze it, before allowing it to return naturally to room temperature. He would then examine the treated water for signs of “contaminant”, reporting particularly on the water’s suitability for human ingestion. With a few taps on the display screen, the sentence was passed. Jan pressed the ‘execute’ button and hurried to the sanctuary of the Chesterfield armchair. The final, dreadful act was complete. Jan closed his eyes, desperate to invoke a pleasant memory to counter this desolate present. After searching, he found one; he came to them now, called upon them.
* * *
The rain was torrential, the sky low and heavy; the colour of acrid smoke. Jan bolted though the sodden quad, not to save himself from the rain; he was saturated, he could get no wetter, but because of his desire to reach his destination. Professor Isaac Pitts – the ancient harbinger, the half-forgotten man who was as a god to the young second-year student – was to give a talk at St. John’s, and Jan was eager to see his idol in action.
Reeling around a tight corner, saved from the rain at last, Jan nearly collided with a hunched figure in a wheelchair. Spinning around to expel the momentum, Jan caught the surprised gaze of the wizened face; the deep, ravine-like lines from nose to jaw, the forest of silver hair sprouting from both nostrils, the gelatinous expanse of earlobes, the brilliant blue eyes that belied the man’s decrepit exterior and told of a vast sea of intellect and genius still boiling within.
“Watch it, lad! You could have knocked me out of my chair”. The pragmatic normalness of the voice surprised Jan. Slightly guttural, a thick northern accent. Jan recognised the voice immediately as that of Pitts. He had heard it once – or more precisely, heard it many times from one source – on an audio recording of Pitts at his cataclysmic and unrelenting best at a rally some fifty years ago. The voice that now warned Jan was older, less fiery, but still contained the same unmistakable grain.
“Professor Pitts,” said Jan through ragged breath.
“Aye” came the rather surprised reply.
“I’m on my way to your lecture, professor. I… thought I was going to be late.”
“Well unless they’ve started without me, which they sometimes do at these things, then you haven’t missed much. You can wheel me there, son. I’m absolutely lost, been staring at that bloody map for about ten minutes, can’t make head nor tail of it. Are we far?”
“No, not far… just around here.”
“Well lead on then, young’un. What’s your name?”
“Good on you, Jan!”
They spoke as Jan wheeled the aged genius through the sodden grounds of the college, Pitts asking Jan of his current studies, what his future plans were, Jan asking Pitts to regale him with anecdotes from his illustrious and controversial life. Jan usually found conversation with strangers a chore, but words, questions and thoughts came easily in the presence of this great man. Whether it was his age, his relaxed demeanour, or the still burning ember in his electric blue eyes, Jan found himself desperate to talk and listen. All too soon, they reached the door of the lecture theatre. Jan peered through the glass in the door. The lecture was due to start fifteen minutes ago, yet there were only three people, one of whom appeared to be in a deep sleep, sitting in the room.
“Many there?” asked Pitts from his chair, rustling a few papers underneath the heavy woollen poncho that covered his whole body like a black cocoon.
“Honestly? No,” Jan hesitantly replied. “Three… well, four with me.”
“Good. I hate doing these things anyway. Ha’way, let’s sack it off. Do you fancy a drink?”
In less than half an hour they were warm, dry and on to their second pint, ensconced in a small alcove at the back of a pub. The pleasantries were out of the way, and they were on to discussing deep philosophical science in hypothetical scenarios; Pitts’ most commonly repeated phrase seeming to be “what would you do if…”
“So… excusing for a moment the astronomically unlikely probability for a moment,” the crumpled old professor chuckled, struggling with the weight of bringing the nut-brown pint to his thick purple lips, “imagine we found a planet… far away, but close enough to get to… that was identical to our own; you know, same size, same gravity, temperature, proximity to a star, atmosphere; everything. The only difference would be that this planet would be exactly as ours was before man came along. The question is, would you go there, young’un? To live?”
“Absolutely,” laughed Jan, “in a heartbeat!”
“Good lad! But you can never come back to earth.”
“Oh, now you’re changing the rules! Why can’t I come back?”
“Only enough fuel for a one-way trip!”
“Well can I take anyone with me?”
“Here man, that’s an entirely different ‘what if’ question isn’t it?! Who would you take with you to an astral desert island? We could spend all day on that one, so let’s leave it alone for now.”
The two were laughing riotously; Pitts at the ridiculousness of his own supposition, Jan at the delight not only of meeting his academic hero, but on discovering him to be even more inspirational and vivacious that he had imagined.
“But seriously,” Pitts continued, wiping his eyes, “how many others do you think would go? How many others would join us on this new planet? Even if they were told that it was exactly the same, even if they were told that our planet had only fifty… sixty at a push, years of resources left to sustain us before we exhaust the lot – which I have been telling anyone who’d listen for my whole career is the case! I think you’d be surprised at how few would come, young’un. People still think that we have some sort of divine dominion over this planet; that we can do what we want for as long as we want here because this planet is ours. But me, and a couple of others, have been telling everyone we’re in the endgame now, who knows if we can recover… so you get on that rocket if you get a chance, lad… if they ever get around to building one, and you make sure that if we do get ourselves a second shot on another planet…” the old man trailed off as he drained his pint, “well… anyway… let’s get onto the juicy bit… who are you taking up in the ship with you, eh?!”
Later that afternoon, Jan wheeled Pitts to the train station, both of them drunk as lords, Pitts singing (after a fashion), flitting between vociferous bellowing and sonorous, vibrato laden crooning; both styles consisting of unending strings of nonsensical syllables and a lot of finger pointing to emphasise key, albeit indecipherable, points. As Jan left the Professor on the platform, Pitts grabbed the hem of Jan’s shirt and earnestly whispered “it’s not all hopeless, young’un. All it takes is one lone voice sometimes. That and hope. You’re a good lad!”
* * *
An almost jovial ‘ping’ from the heat chamber roused Jan from this blissful remembrance. The act was complete; the last life form from the now destroyed Chione 91168 was no more. All that was left was for Jan to pick over the myriad minute carcases; morsels of carrion floating in between the sterile waters.
Again with effort both physical and mental, Jan wrenched himself from the confines of the chair. In the drawers underneath the work bench, he rummaged for his protective gloves, long wrought unnecessary. He removed the now room temperature beaker from the heat chamber and took his first look at the murdered water. And immediately Jan could tell something was not right; something had changed.
The contents of the beaker were still liquid; they had been converted into steam, then ice, then back to liquid; but now they were strangely, subtly different in a way that Jan couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was still a transparent liquid, but the way the surface caught the perennially burgeoning sunset light. Was there just a momentary sparkle of red, as if something were moving just under the surface? The way the water shifted itself as Jan delicately carried the container to the workbench; as if it were trying to cling onto itself. Minute perceptions all, barely noticeable suspicions really; ‘normal’ to everyone, save someone who had spent their working life examining, looking at and dreaming about water. To Jan, these subtle changes screamed out. His breathing shallowed, pins and needles began to run along his arms. He had to explore this new unmapped land; it was a terrible compulsion.
Without averting his eyes from the beaker, lest the illusion dispelled itself, Jan reached out a hand and wrapped it around a pipette. He plunged it into the beaker. Another ripple – or a shudder – played across the water’s surface. Another glint of clear red. Jan squeezed the pipette and withdrew it. Empty. How could it be? He tried once more. The same result. Instinctively, Jan placed his hand on the side of the beaker. With a jolt he removed it, gagging on some invisible lump in his throat. Not an extreme of temperature, but more shocking to all Jan’s senses was that the beaker felt inviting; pleasantly warm. With the same caution, he touched the beaker once more, allowing his full palm to make contact, and his fingers to spread and sprawl across the surface. Jan was struck by a feeling that the sensation was not unlike when he would press his small hand against his pet cat’s ribcage as it purred by the fire at his parent’s home. The deep warmth, the gentle pulse, the unstoppable push and pull of inhalation and exhalation. Whether illusion or madness – the two were as one in this unfathomable moment – Jan felt all these things on the side of the beaker, and within the bafflement, confusion, curiosity and fear came a small trickle of reassurement.
Once more he tried to obtain a workable sample using the pipette, this time he peered into the substance – he was becoming less and less sure that it was still ‘water’ in any conventional sense – as he did so. Again a wave of confusion and fear lapped against the shore of his rational mind. Did the ‘water’ appear to move out of the way? Surely not. But once more the pipette came out empty.
“I need to see this magnified,” Jan said out loud, “but how?” The beaker was entirely too large for the delicate nanoscope, but what other ostentatious devices had Jan – half joking, half testing the ostensibly limitless boundaries of the UNAF government – requested for his temporary lab that may be apposite in this final hour? After a few moments of thought, followed by several minutes of aimless and furious rummaging, a thought burst into Jan’s mind. “The microendoscope! Maybe…”
Jan had requested the microendoscope supposedly for examination of conditions in the stomach after drinking Chione water, but really because he had rifled through the latest medical supplies catalogue, ringing every product that looked like it might be even vaguely useful.
After a few minutes of impatient searching, Jan found the device, still in its packaging, at the back of a cupboard. With delicate touch, he removed the two metre long, hair-thin wire; the camera would have sufficient magnitude and resolution to display common Earth bacteria, but any hint of the sub-fentometre Chione creatures would be entirely undetectable to the device. Still, it was better than nothing. Jan attached the microendoscope’s monitor to the auxiliary port on the nanoscope display screen, switched on the remote control, and with sublime care, introduced the camera wire into the beaker.
A pixillated crimson glare beamed out from the nanoscope screen; it was impossible to decipher anything. The colour slowly deepened in an indigo, then flashed instantly transparent. Unable to comprehend anything that he could see, Jan focussed the camera using the remote, weaving the serpentine wire through the strange new world, searching for any decipherable clue, mind racing with hypotheses, trying to make sense of the impossible.
* * *
Though the artificial light remained at the crisp beginnings of a sunset, hours had passed, Jan perplexed and fascinated equally by the scant glimpses, the vague suppositions he had managed to glean. Though every muscle ached from the position he stood in, he could not tear himself away from this most glorious spectacle. Only once had he moved, to grab the pen and collection of loose pages marked ‘Diary’, to begin writing notes on this new discovery. Though only brief stabs at comprehension – non-sequiturs and brief observations, Jan had written:
Where is the colour coming from? Where does it go? It pulses red to purple – then transparent. Is it some sort of respiratory… or blood flow – -NO! Or maybe conveying mood or emotions – cuttlefish – to other… WHAT? Other what? Parts of itself?
Is there life? Is this life? There appears to be some kind of life here still, though I can’t detect it.
The liquid (it isn’t water – anymore) appears to be moving out of the way of the microendoscope.
IT IS A SINGLE ENTITY!!!
A solid liquid. Somehow (HOW???)
The molecular structure has changed. Have the Chione creatures fused with the atoms of the water when subjected to superheating?
It cannot, in any way I have found, be separated from itself.
A living water! Communicating with parts of itself. It is a single entity or a – collective consciousness
Parts seem to colour, then other parts respond.
This is astonishing!!!
* * *
With one eye, and most of his racing mind, still on the enigmatic beaker, Jan read through some of his scribbled notes, trying to allow his thoughts to coalesce into something cogent. Rather than killing the legion of miniscule creatures in the Chione water, had the heating process somehow changed their constitution – somehow fused them together – fused them with the very water to create a singular entity; indivisible from itself and capable of at least rudimentary communication?
The speculations played absently across Jan’s beleaguered mind, vying for space, until they were struck by a lightening-both of realisation: The water in the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ tank! Surely not. Surely the same process could not have taken place on such a gargantuan scale. But Jan’s scale model massacre which had created this new, esoteric entity now calmly pulsating on the work bench had mirrored precisely that in the tank, so he had to assume that, all being equal, conditions would be the same.
He thought for a moment of the colossal size of the ‘Aspidochelone’s’ tank; the sheer magnitude of it. Then, staggering to the comfort of his armchair, Jan tried to contemplate the prospect of its living contents. A creature the size of a moon, resting in the dark, passing unseen colours across itself, communicating to parts of itself. But communicating what? Fear? Confusion? Anger? Did it know what had been done to it? Would concepts of responsibility, guilt – even revenge – be ludicrous to project onto this newly formed leviathan?
With a wry and plaintive smile, Jan thought of Rose, of Maddox, of them waking from S.A. expecting to be hailed as heroes. Would he be able to communicate these new, even stranger, findings to them sufficiently, or would they laugh him out of the Captain’s quarters again? Would they suspect him of foul play; of deliberately sabotaging the water supply? Would they cover it up, or come clean? Best to let them discover this on their own.
* * *
Jan picked up the diary and underneath the scrawled title, wrote, with deliberate neatness:
“And Not a Drop to Drink.”
 Whilst this ethnography cannot provide an outline of the contestations around such a term, nor its multifarious uses, the effects of such a term are discussed in Chapter 6 of this book. For a detailed account of the term, I refer the reader to Bernhardt Haelstroem’s “Tracing the ‘Water Diaspora’ of the SACN” (2196).