By Sandi Reed-Chan
The scene was idyllic, a world blanketed in white with dozens of children busy sledding down every available hill. Marcus Morgan was mesmerized; the scene was almost identical to that of the snow globe, which his grandfather had given him when he was nine.
Marcus shook his head at the illusion; no living human had ever seen real snow, or rain, or water of any kind on the surface. He knew the white substance on the hills was too grainy and hard for snow. It was salt.
He also knew that those weren’t children gliding along on sleds; they were salt miners riding enormous, long-legged salt crabs that had evolved from the much smaller land crab. Taming the salt crabs had been much easier than dealing with the corrosive effects of salt on machinery. Plus, most people really enjoyed working with the animals. They were large enough to comfortably accommodate up to two adults; and they were intelligent and trainable, much like the long-extinct horse.
If humans don’t survive, I wonder what will replace us? Marcus thought.
Marcus monitored the flight path of his flyer, only five minutes to Chochmo. In order to relax, he did a few isometric exercises. Upon waking every morning, he did a complete workout; as a result, he could easily pass for ten years younger than his actual age of thirty-seven. As a boy, he’d hated his blond-haired, blue-eyed boyishness; now, he could appreciate looking younger for the gift that it was.
He checked his water status for the third time and within seconds an alarm sounded.
“Finally!” He placed an apricot-sized water pill into his mouth and let the shell dissolve; a full ounce of water slowly trickled down his throat. Marcus sighed.
“Good morning, Control,” Marcus said. The underground entrance into Chochmo was directly below him. “I’ve got a project meeting with Secretary Sheffield at 9:00 a.m.”
“Welcome back, Dr. Morgan. Neutralize your flyer and we’ll bring you in.”
“She’s all yours. Thanks.” Marcus leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Got it. Good luck with that meeting. Control out.”
We could use some good luck, Marcus thought.
Eyes still closed, Marcus remembered the summit where he’d first met James Sheffield, the Secretary of Planetary Resources. They had both delivered speeches that fateful afternoon. Marcus had been scheduled to speak right after Sheffield, which was ironic considering how diametrically opposed their conclusions were regarding the phage. After his speech was over, he’d be free to spend the rest of the weekend with his wife Sarah and his son Luke. Only, that’s not what happened.
At the time, Marcus hadn’t given Sheffield another thought, but now he remembered that the man had already looked old at thirty-five. Several years of illicit drug use had taken a heavy toll on his health. The question of how such a man could’ve lucked into his prominent position was easily answered: Sheffield had been born into the planet’s ruling family. Nepotism aside, Marcus hoped that he’d still be able to make him see the potential of his discovery.
With a slight jolt, his flyer landed in Chochmo, which was now the only place on Earth where ground water was still available. Once he was safely inside the closed environment, Marcus removed his faceplate. He inhaled deeply, savoring the water-rich air; he felt it whisper against his bare skin. This should be a normal experience for everyone on Earth, Marcus thought.
He made his way through the governmental labyrinth until he found Sheffield’s office. Marcus recognized the man even though he had even less of his scraggly gray hair; his brown eyes were still red-rimmed and cold. It was difficult to believe that both men were the same age.
Right on schedule, the meeting began. “Hello, Sir,” he said while holding out his hand. “My name is Marcus Morgan.”
“I remember you, Dr. Morgan. Have a seat.” Sheffield motioned to the adjacent chair, completely ignoring his outstretched hand.
“Thanks.” He sat down, noting the slight. I can tell this is going to be a challenge, Marcus thought.
“What project are you trying to fund now?”
“Same project. Only now, we’ve discovered the cure. We’ve also designed a prototype delivery system–”
“Hold on! You can’t just skate over the details. What’s the cure?”
“It’s an antiviral drug that’ll completely eradicate the alien transposons–jumping genes—within the mutated bacteria.” Marcus saw the confusion on Sheffield’s face. “Simply put, no more transposons means no more incalculable mutations; the crust can then be destroyed and the marine phage will be over.”
“Sounds expensive. What’ll it cost?”
“Roughly, 750 million gallons of water.”
“What? We don’t even know if it’ll work!”
“It’s been exhaustively tested. Trust me, it’ll work.”
“Too late.” Sheffield smiled. “I’ve already come up with the solution to the problem. Project Challenger will evacuate all forms of life from the planet within five years.”
“What?” I hope that’s not a sound bite, Marcus thought. “We can’t do that.”
“Oh yes we can. My project has already been submitted to the council.”
“It’s against the law.” Marcus took a deep breath. “Our planet surface is almost terminally arid, which means that we won’t survive here for another five years.”
“You’re always making such dire predictions, Morgan.”
“You didn’t buy the last one either.”
“A lucky guess that had a very unlucky outcome.”
“I wouldn’t risk lives on simple luck.”
“No? I’m willing to bet that we do have enough time to leave.”
“Have you forgotten why Directive 920 banned all space travel?”
“Evacuating the planet will always be the last resort.”
Marcus began to pace. This can’t be happening. “Yeah? Where are we going?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “We have the technology to search for our next planet.”
Is he serious? “It’s not that easy.”
“For the last twenty-eight years, the only things we’ve sent into space are orbital satellites. We have no current data.”
“What difference does it make? We’re looking for a planet, not a misplaced wallet.”
Amazingly confident for someone who doesn’t know jack. Where are we supposed to get the spaceships? All of the factories were destroyed.”
“That’s what everyone was told,” Sheffield said.
“Are you saying that the government kept the space program active? That’s just wrong.”
“No one asked you for your opinion.” Sheffield leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and planted both feet on top of his desk. “All the arrangements have been made; we’ll begin launching test ships as soon as my project is approved.”
“You don’t give a damn about the safety of the men you’re sending out into space. My father led the final expedition–”
Marcus took a calming breath. “Colonel Bill Morgan was a hero, not a failure.”
“Yes, yes, the Morgan family has been trying to save the planet for a thousand years but so far you’ve come up with nothing. I’d say your family has milked this problem long enough.”
He stopped pacing and stood in front of Sheffield‘s desk. “Sir, with all due respect.” That would be none, Marcus thought. “Project Challenger is unnecessary since I have a cure for our planet.”
“Let’s be clear.” He put his feet down on the ground and sat up straight. “I’m backing my project, not yours.” Sheffield smirked. “You’d better start packing, Morgan.”
“Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself, Sir; as I recall, there was another project named Challenger that didn’t end well.”
Marcus fumed; he walked briskly through the underground city, eager to get away from Sheffield’s office. He thinks we’ve accomplished nothing? Would he even be alive today without people like us? Marcus thought.
Amelia Morgan had discovered the bacteriophage that was brought here in a probe containing biological samples from Mars–the same phage responsible for the extinction of all life on Mars–and crash landed in the Tasman Sea. The phage immediately began isolating the bacteria-laden water inside an impermeable crust roughly one to three miles beneath the Earth’s surface. Amelia then established the Science of Water Restoration, of which Marcus was only the latest Morgan at the helm. Sheffield was right about one thing: attempting to save our planet has always been a Morgan family tradition.
Along the way, they’d also invented many of the items necessary for daily survival: the envirosuit, including the faceplate breathing apparatus, and the life-sustaining water pills.
When the call had gone out to explore space in search of a new Earth-like planet–long before it’d been confirmed that escape from the phage was impossible–many members of his family had answered the call. His most intense memory was the unbelievably strong grip of his grandfather’s hand as they watched his father’s spaceship disappear.
After the launch, his grandfather had given him a snow globe, an ancient family relic that had been manufactured when the Earth was still blue and snow still fell. Somehow, it had survived all the cataclysmic changes of their dying world. In return for this precious gift, Marcus had made a secret promise to his grandfather.
Calmer now, Marcus pushed his memories aside. On his way back to the lab he began formulating his next step. Sheffield thinks this fight is over but I haven’t even started yet.
Marcus waited for the signal from the mediacam. “Good Afternoon, I have exciting news to share. My team and I have reason to believe that we can cure our planet. Just his morning, I laid this project out to the appropriate governmental representative but was offered a counter solution instead. He suggested that we should evacuate the planet, even though he had no idea where we’re supposed to go. As frightening as that sounds, it’s not the real reason why we shouldn‘t abandon our world. This is our home, this is where we came from and this is where we belong. Please, stand with me and together we can rebuild this world. I call for an immediate hearing of Earth’s Planetary Council to vote on each of these projects. Thank you.”
Either project would change the planet forever; the choice was now in their hands.
Marcus sat alone while he waited for the ruling of the council. He had grown accustomed to being alone in the two years since the last waterquake: that deadly phenomenon caused by the violent movement of the alien crust on its path to capture the planet’s water. The closer it got to completion, the more destructive the waterquakes became. The last one had been the single most devastating disaster in recorded history. If the council ruled against his project, soon there wouldn’t be anyone left to record history.
His audio link went live, “Hello.” He closed his eyes as he listened.
“Hello, Dr. Morgan. I’m Secretary Albert from the Ruling Council and I‘m calling to tell you that you won this battle. We’re going to back your project on one condition: you must have a functional prototype of the delivery system unit.”
“Yes, Sir.” His eyes were wide open now. “The DSU prototype is fully functional and I’m more than ready to win the war, Sir.”
“Good.” The Secretary chuckled. “You’ll be working with Colonel Yang. You bring the science, she’ll handle the logistics.”
“Would that be Colonel Jocelyn Yang?” My first love, Marcus thought.
“Do you know her?”
“I went through school with her brother Gil. He was a genius.”
“I remember Dr. Yang; he was one of the casualties from the 2959 waterquake. The one you predicted an hour before it happened, right? What a horrible loss of life.”
“It was horrible.” Even “horrible” seems inadequate when describing the loss of countless lives that I failed to save, Marcus thought.
“Which is why this is our top priority.”
“We must do everything we can to avoid another such disaster.” Secretary Albert sighed. “We’re backing you for that chance at a new beginning here on Earth.”
“Thank you, Sir. With luck, it will be a new beginning for all of us.”
“I certainly hope so. Good luck and good night.”
“Good night.” He shook the globe in his hand and watched it snow.
Marcus was tracking the progress of the crust via satellite. Clearly visible from space–even three miles below the surface–it resembled a huge thirsty snake, except this snake held its mouth agape, as it swallowed all the water in its path. The insatiable snake-like crust had been slowly sucking the planet dry for nearly a millennium.
“Good morning, Dr. Morgan.” Colonel Jocelyn Yang said as she entered his office. She was petite and delicately built but she carried herself with the confidence of a women used to being in charge. Her long, black hair was braided and intricately bound, which ingeniously added more than a couple of inches to her height.
Marcus walked away from his terminal.
“Good morning.” She’s just as exquisite as ever. “No entourage?”
“Oh, then you get the special tour.”
They both laughed and Marcus gave her a hug. He still remembered those beautiful brown eyes and the exotic fluidity of her face, which showcased her quick wit and intelligence.
“It’s really good to see you again, Jocelyn.”
“It’s good to see you, too. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Me? What about you?”
Jocelyn became somber. “I was sorry to hear about Sarah and Luke. I can’t imagine how painful losing your wife and son must’ve been.”
“Thank you. And I know how hard it must’ve been to lose your brother Gil, too. You guys were always so close.” Marcus paused for a moment. “If we do this right, it’ll never happen again.”
“I can get the job done.” Jocelyn said with a huge dose of steely resolve. “But first, I could use a refresher course on the phage.”
“I remember how Gil used to tease you that he got all the science smarts in the family.”
“Did he ever!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take it real slow. Here.” Marcus inserted a test slide into his computer and a large-headed, stick-figure appeared on the wall-sized screen in front of them. “That’s the culprit.”
Jocelyn stared at the screen. “It looks like a bug with all those legs.”
“Close enough. It’s actually a parasite, and those are tail fibers, not legs.”
“Charming. Where did you get the test sample?”
Marcus took out a small tool – a sterile device that extracted a single drop of blood – and took her hand. “May I?” At her nod, he quickly drew a sample from her thumb.
“I’ll never get used to that.”
Marcus laughed and inserted the second slide into his computer. “That’s in your blood; the first sample was from my blood.”
“I thought they only lived in water?”
“Humans are mostly water.”
“Great. That’s inside of me? Why is it so hard to get rid of that disgusting parasite?”
“Because it’s an alien and it’s never played by our rules.”
“Do you think you can destroy it?”
“Yes!” Marcus went to his computer. “Watch this.” The screen changed to an outer section of the alien crust two miles below the surface. “This was the final test.” Seconds after an explosion, there was no trace of the crust.
“Wow! I thought the crust couldn’t be destroyed.”
“Actually, it was your brother Gil who discovered the key. I found it in his notes after he died.”
Jocelyn gasped. “Wow. Thank you for telling me that.”
“I miss him, too. I miss all of them.” His smile couldn’t hide the sadness in his eyes.
Jocelyn’s smile matched his. “Let’s make them proud.”
“Well, Gil would‘ve loved this.” He placed a drop of clear solution on one of the slides and then replaced it. “Look.”
“What the heck?”
“It’s jumping erratically; it’s lost the ability to successfully mutate.”
“Is that the solution?”
“Not quite. Gil’s final notes suggested that we should try different sources of heat next. It took years for us to figure out that the cure must be detonated in order to work its real magic, since heat or fire significantly increases the efficacy.” He took out the slide and lit it with a fire stick. After it had cooled, he inserted it into the computer again. “Voila.”
Jocelyn whistled through her teeth. “It’s gone.”
“It gets even better.” Setting the slide down, Marcus used the tool to extract a fresh drop of his own blood and placed it on the previously burnt slide. “Look at it now.”
She watched as the transposon disintegrated and was immediately replaced; in seconds, the entire segment was completely rebuilt. Jocelyn gasped.
“That same blood sample will continue to eliminate transposons and rebuild the original DNA.”
“For how long?”
“Indefinitely. Six months ago, we heated our original sample and it hasn’t failed yet.”
“Has exposure to the cure affected the growth of the crust in any way?”
“Yes! It hasn’t increased in size since the tests began and it even shows a slight regression. However, we need to achieve critical mass in order to completely eradicate the alien transposons responsible for building the crust.”
Jocelyn smiled. “Let’s get this project rolling.”
Marcus sat at a computer station aboard a military transport; he was maneuvering the DSU probes inside the coils of the snake. These probes released a Compact Detonation Device every 2,500 miles through the coils; the CDDs opened in a star configuration, specifically designed to permanently adhere to the vulnerable inner wall of the snake-like crust. Once in position, they were ready to be detonated.
Startled by the sound of footsteps, Marcus looked up as Jocelyn entered. In order to focus on his task, he had asked for as much privacy as was possible on a transport ship. He had to admit though, he could sure use a break.
“How’s it going, Marcus?” Jocelyn asked.
“We’re right on schedule,” Marcus said. “I’ve successfully deployed ninety-eight percent of the CDDs and we should be ready for the detonation process within the next few hours.”
“Good.” Jocelyn paused while she sat down next to Marcus. “We’ll begin where the Tasman Sea used to be–at the base of the snake’s coil–where it all started. It‘s a full circle moment.”
“It may also be our last chance to avoid extinction, Jocelyn,” Marcus replied softly.
“You sound nervous.”
“Now that everything is almost ready to go, I’m terrified.”
“Marcus.” Jocelyn took both of his hands in hers. “This will work. Every minute detail of this plan has been scrutinized, analyzed, investigated and evaluated before implementation. Trust me. This is what I do.”
“I have no reason to doubt your abilities.”
“Then trust my judgment. When we’re done, they’ll be naming new oceans, rivers and lakes after you.”
“Come on, Jocelyn!” Marcus laughed. “You know I’m not motivated by any of that.”
“Like it or not, you’re going to be a hero to everyone on Earth by the time we’re done.”
“Jocelyn,” Marcus lowered his voice and leaned toward her. “I’m going to tell you a secret that I’ve kept for most of my life. Back when I was nine, I promised my grandfather that I’d make it snow again.”
“Yeah, it sounded so simple then.” Marcus shook his head. “Now, I know that I can’t really make it snow, but I thought that if I could find a cure for the phage then our planet could begin to heal. Eventually, our ecosystem would return to normal so, in a way, I would’ve kept my promise to my grandfather. . .
“Oh, Marcus. For such a brilliant scientist, you sure can be a goofball sometimes.” Jocelyn smiled. “If anyone can make it snow, I believe you can.”
“I think I desperately needed to hear that, especially today.” Marcus kissed her right hand still entwined with his own. “Thank you for believing in me, Jocelyn.”
She smiled as she got to her feet, easily resuming the mantle of command once again. “I’m going up top to check on my flight crew since we’ll be monitoring the entire detonation process from the air. Join us on the bridge when you’re ready to begin.”
“Aye, aye, Colonel,” he said with a wink and a smile. After Jocelyn left, Marcus took a deep breath. Closing his eyes he visualized water returning to the surface and he could almost taste the water-rich air.
I will live to see it snow again, Marcus thought.
At full deployment, Marcus joined the Colonel and her crew. They took flight within minutes. The countdown began; the transport was directly over the first CDD when it detonated. Marcus and the others watched expectantly as they circled above the site.
They circled for five eternal minutes. Colonel Yang widened the circle. After ten minutes, Marcus had trouble remembering to breathe. They continued circling for fifteen minutes but they saw no activity on the surface.
Marcus was on the edge of his seat when they arrived at the second site. Again, they circled for fifteen minutes. He grew more anxious with every unremarkable detonation–almost hyperventilating–but there were no visible changes reported at the next four sites.
This must not fail; it‘s already the eleventh hour! Marcus thought.
They were circling above the seventh site when Marcus spotted smoke. “Colonel Yang, would you bring us down next to that plume of smoke?”
“In position, Dr. Morgan. Where’s all that smoke coming from?”
Marcus continued to stare at the smoke, which wasn’t acting like normal smoke at all. Suddenly, he realized what he was seeing. “That’s not smoke, Colonel, that’s water!” A fountain of water was shooting straight up half a mile high; it was more water than the average person saw in their whole life.
For the next few minutes, the air was filled with shouts and whistles. It was impossible to make out what any one person was saying.
Finally, he heard he Colonel’s voice cutting straight through, “Congratulations, Dr. Morgan. Your family would’ve been so proud.”
A deafening cheer went up as Marcus laughed and cried at the same time. He was not alone.
Over the next few hours, Marcus spotted several more fountains forming ponds and even lakes but nothing else. It was time for a closer look. “Colonel Yang, may I have permission to land for reconnaissance?”
“Permission granted, Dr. Morgan. Suit up and meet me in the docking area.”
Marcus was ready and waiting when the colonel arrived also wearing her envirosuit. “Aren’t you supposed to stay up here and mind the store?”
“I have a full crew at the ready and they’re trained to handle just about anything that could come our way. Besides, did you really think I was going to miss out on one of the greatest moments in the history of our planet?”
“At least let me drive.” Marcus led her to his flyer and they climbed aboard. He circled above while they decided on the safest place to set down. “Landing here could be the most dangerous thing either of us has ever done. The CDDs could’ve triggered waterquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods or all three. We simply don’t know.”
“Exhilarating, isn’t it?” Jo asked with a grin.
“Yeah,” Marcus laughed. “Let’s go.” Cautiously, they walked toward the spraying fountain.
Jocelyn held out her gloved hand and watched in awe as the precious water pooled in her palm.
To Marcus’ astonishment, he identified several large chunks of the crust on the surface; the CDDs had done their job well. The black and gray, marbled grain of the exterior crust appeared indestructible, and it had been for almost a thousand years. But as Marcus stood there watching, the chunks dissolved right before his eyes.
“Grandpa Marcus! Grandma Jocelyn! Come see!” Nine-year-old Nathan yelled as he ran out the front door.
“That’s our Nathan.” Marcus grinned at Jocelyn. “Shall we go see what he’s so excited about?”
“I think we must,” Jocelyn said with a grin to match his. He helped her up and they sauntered over to the door as quickly as their old bones would take them. Jocelyn got there first and gasped.
“What is it, Jocelyn?” Looking out at the scene before them, Marcus stood transfixed. Small flakes floated down from the heavens, blanketing the world in white.
It was snowing.