Brian MacMillan

When We All Have Brains

BM When We All Have Brains

When We All Have Brains

A collection of science fiction short stories. The book is complete and being prepared for production.

The featured story takes place in a near-future earth, where the Gulf Stream has stopped, the oceans have acidified and are now full of rapidly speciating jellyfish. The protagonist is an environmentalist who opposes human manipulation of the natural environment, specifically her uncle’s desire to turn the earth back into what it was by recreating coral reefs and reactivating the Gulf Stream. The goal of the story is to encourage the reader to reconsider environmental arguments in a way that is independent of specific problems, like the extinction of one species and the success of another.

Chapter 1: Swimming with the Invertebrates

The Bay of Fundy was as clear as a cup of tap water. The water was so pure that when the sun was directly overhead, as it was now, you could see the ocean floor. Chandra floated to the surface and lay on her back staring at the sky through filtered eye-glasses. Even though it was midday, on the horizon she could see the outline of the rising moon. Soon the gravity of the sun and the moon would combine into one of the most powerful forces on Earth.

Chandra dove down into the ocean. Initially all that she could see was a bloom of moon jellies, which after a moment parted to reveal a tube-like creature that glowed with a faint, phosphorescent light. At first she thought that the creature was a typical scyphozoan, perhaps 2 or 3 metres long. The giant jellyfish floated in the perspectiveless sea toward her. Her scanner identified it as Scyphozoan giganticus, one of the newest and largest inhabitants of the North Atlantic. The creature was shaped like a 30 meter wide diaphanous bell, its tubular body not unlike that of a squid. The cilia that lined its perimeter glowed red, yellow and blue neon. She could see through its translucent body, save for where there were thick, pulsing objects that looked like organs. There was a dark cloud in the middle of the creature, probably a meal of krill or zooplankton.

The jellyfish flailed pathetically. It was surrounded by a halo of detritus including the skeletons of running shoes, plastic toys and fish. As she swam closer, with the intention of freeing it, she noticed that it had been trapped in an ancient drift net. She proceeded carefully. Even though she was protected by a suit that would allow her to walk safely on Jupiter, she knew that the giant invertebrate could nevertheless kill her if she got ensnared in its tentacles. After much careful effort, she cut the jellyfish free. It disappeared in a moment.

Chandra returned to the surface of the Bay and again inspected the positions of the sun and the moon. They were almost aligned. The ocean started to tremble; she could feel its energy in her soul. “This is the point where natural biology intersects with religion”, she thought. Though mankind had fled from its wounded home planet centuries ago, every culture from the Earth Diaspora had moon and sun and water cults. You could find vestiges of these cults on planets without moons, in deep space orbitals with no oceans and on mining colonies with cold, distant suns. The myths remained strong because their roots were so miraculous.

For one moment all was still then the tide turned and the ocean began to race to the sun and the moon. Chandra gave in to its force, and was propelled along the length of the northern arm of the Bay. The cove where Chandra beached was littered with invertebrates, twigs and kelp. She had a few minutes to explore before she needed to leave for England, so she decided to walk along the very narrow strip of land that was not now under water. She crawled over a fallen tree and around a bend into an inlet that had a large wide beach. In the middle she saw a giant jellyfish. As she watched, the creature slowly pulled itself into the ocean. Its main weight, its head, was oriented at a small angle to the sea; its tentacles were weak and had difficulty finding purchase. The creature was blasted by a huge wave and then pushed farther back onto the shore. It struggled again and then went flaccid. Chandra was amazed that it had not yet suffocated. After a brief respite the jelly pulled itself up. To her surprise it began to move toward her and away from the sea. The jellyfish paused when it got to within a dozen meters of her; it sent several long tentacles in her direction, as if it was inspecting her. The next wave swept the giant creature away.

After a moment’s reflection on her encounter with this new, apparently intelligent species, Chandra reluctantly summoned her aircraft: there was a storm off approaching the English Channel, which she had to hurry to avoid. Her craft instantly dropped out of the clouds; it looked like a metal bug as it skimmed across the Bay toward her.

While she returned to Dover, Chandra wondered what would happen next. Her uncle had secured permission for her to study the nepean spring tide in the Bay of Fundy, which she had just done. Would his favor be accompanied by some form of imposition? On this count, his record was mixed. Some of her uncle’s gifts, like his payment of her tuition for post-graduate studies, were deeply appreciated. But others far less so. Chandra remembered receiving a lone parakeet from him once. The gift was inappropriate not just because of its obscene cost but also because she was a person opposed to captivity for any animal. The parakeet had vexed her for weeks until finally, at great cost and risk to her reputation, she found a way have it returned to an environment where it could live and breed in freedom.

Worse than his inappropriate gifts, were the ones that had strings attached to them. Her uncle was rich, so his demands were always for abstract things that he could not directly purchase, like impositions on her time and reputation. Though awkward, she typically would accede to his least offensive requests. For the most part it was wasted time, but she acted without complaint, because of her gratitude for his assistance with her education.

As she thought about her uncle’s motivation in allowing her visit to the Bay of Fundy, she looked out of the window. Her craft was flying over the Grand Banks now. To her surprise she saw a vast construction site where she had expected to see nothing but ocean. Her craft was traveling rapidly, so the site disappeared after only a few minutes; she examined it on her scanner for several more. Between the enigmas of her uncle’s motivations and the construction site on the Grand Banks her mind was kept busy while her craft scudded across the north Atlantic. She landed on the Channel side of her uncle’s property, one kilometer from his main residence. Though the epicenter of the storm was on the other side of the Channel the wind was blowing with considerable force. She still wore her diving suit, so was perturbed neither by wind nor water. She made an attendant take her belongings to her uncle’s home and walked toward the cliffs. A second attendant followed her at a respectful distance.

The landscape was flat and gray. The dominant vegetation was tundra, spotted with low lying ferns and heather. At the edge of the cliffs she encountered a large strip of tape that was placed in a semi circle around the stairway to the beach. On the tape was written the words “Caution: Industrial Zone” in large, iridescent block letters. To Chandra the tape was informational and not a barrier; she ducked under it and walked toward the edge of the cliffs. She knew this section of the property very well; she had played here as a child. Her current path led to a secret stairway that had been carved into the cliffs long ago. She walked to the stairway, with the intention of going down to the beach. When she reached the top of the stairs, she saw that the beach was lined with large machines that had scoops with teeth so sharp that they looked like the mouths of predator dinosaurs. The machines were attended by whisper thin robots which walked calmly through the raging wind as if it did not blow.

“Mining on Earth!” Chandra thought. She was so amazed that it took her a moment to comprehend the entreaty of the house attendant that had followed her: “Madame, it is far too dangerous to be out here right now.” The machine’s statement was punctuated by a strong gust of wind.

The attendant repeated its point, “Madame, we must hurry! The hurricane is upon us.”

There was no outlasting an insistent machine so she turned her back to the Channel and walked back to her uncle’s home. She paused to compose herself at the entrance. A little brass nameplate graced the door. The words on it read “Satish Dekas, Councillor at Law” Seeing her uncle’s first name, Satish, made her smile; the family’s nickname for him had always been Surya, the sun to Chandra, the moon.

She was asked to wait in the house’s interior courtyard; it was full of trees and flowering plants. Tables were sparsely distributed throughout the courtyard, each situated in the middle of a copse of trees. She could see hummingbirds and bees. What struck her most in the midst of this abundance was the humidity. There was no humidity on the orbital where she lived.

In the middle of the courtyard there was an aquarium which contained a snapshot of what had once been the Carysfort reef off of Florida, including tiny dolphins and tuna. She chose a table on the perimeter of atrium as far away from the aquarium as she could. That her uncle had achieved an amazing feat by miniaturizing an entire eco-system was undeniable. But to her it was a dastardly miracle that mocked one of the greatest tragedies of Earth history, the destruction of the coral reefs.

Chandra had not been sitting for more than three breaths, when her uncle greeted her with a barrage of questions, “How was your trip? Do you have pictures?” He smiled as he spoke. His friendly curiosity was an aspect of him that she loved. As he spoke he gently prodded her from where she sat and escorted her to a table immediately beside the aquarium. She could find no way to politely resist him.

They spent the next few minutes reviewing the recordings from her trip. To Chandra’s surprise Surya spent most of his time examining her scans; and had more questions about the acidity of the water than about the strange creatures that she had encountered. He did pay close attention to the video of the beached giant jellyfish. “Earth is so alien”, he said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Chandra, when you see these monstrous invertebrates don’t you feel that this isn’t our planet anymore.”

“Uncle Surya, Earth was never our planet.”

He caught his breath and then changed the subject. “Do you have any other trips planned?”

“I’ve been trying to get permission to visit Shantung. The tides there are almost as powerful as those at the Bay of Fundy.”

“Why don’t you come with me to Florida while you wait? I’m doing some work on the Carysfort reef that you might be interested in.”

“Uncle, there’s no reef there. The Caribbean is just a desert.”

Instead of replying he simply glanced at the aquarium.

“You’re trying to recreate the reef aren’t you?” Chandra was quite angry. Surya tried to keep his expression featureless, but for an instant a supremely self-satisfied look fleeted across his face.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”, she asked coldly.

“Chandra, that is a ridiculous question. I still haven’t told you anything. You know how I operate. When I’m making a deal, even a charitable one like this, no one except those who have a need to know are given details.” He reached out and affectionately clasped her hands in his, “You’re the first person to whom I will tell all once my project goes live.”

For a moment she dared to dream that perhaps her uncle had stumbled upon a miraculous technology that only caused good and not bad. With this technology he would rebuild the desert oceans while leaving the life that had just evolved in them alone. It was an impossible fantasy. She tore her hands out of his and said accusingly, “What you propose will affect every ocean. How do you know that your tinkering won’t kill what little life is left in the seas?”

“Chandra, the specifications for my work have been studied for nearly 100 years. Or a million years if you include the computer models. No whales or tuna are going to be affected. In fact, they will thrive under my plan.”

“Why must you do anything? Why can’t you let the Earth heal itself?”

“Because that could take ten thousand years.” He smiled broadly, but that did not break the ice that had formed in the chilly space that separated them. “Chandra, please humor me. I am a good man. Let me show off my legacy to you before you leave. It would mean so much …”

Surya’s attempt at reconciliation failed, but she was ensnared by her curiosity. She had guessed some of his plan’s key details: the construction site at the Grand Banks was a heat pump to start the Gulf Stream; the mining at Dover was to provide a source of calcium for reefs; the tiny creatures that she saw in his aquarium would doubtless grow to full size when released into the ocean. Perhaps she could find a weak link in this scheme, and in a subtle way sabotage it. Despite being compelled by this fantasy, her answer to his offer was non-committal: “I’m really tired. Let’s talk about this after I’ve had some rest.”

“Of course.”

She did not rest.

She spent the evening fantasizing about reprogramming a battalion of slight, industrial robots to dismantle all of her uncle’s mega-projects. She knew that dismantling even one project would be daunting; but she also knew that robots were persistent and if convinced of the morality of a path would follow it to its conclusion.

The next morning she agreed to visit her uncle’s triumph in the Caribbean. Surya had assumed she would accept his offer, so she did not even need to pack before they left. Everything had been arranged.

As they walked towards the landing field her uncle was in an ebullient mood. They passed the limestone mine by the tape barrier near the top of the cliffs. “Uncle, why are you mining these cliffs? Is it for Carysfort?”

“Sort of.” He smiled sheepishly.

“How are you getting this limestone there?”

He didn’t answer but she already knew the answer to her question. “That’s what the heat pump you are building off of the Grand Banks is for, isn’t it?”

She knew that her guess was correct when he said, “Chandra, I always forget how much smarter you are than me.”

Again she asked, “Uncle, why can’t you leave the Earth alone?” They lapsed into silence when he did not reply.

Surya chose a seat near the front of their craft, while she settled into a seat near the back. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts: flying made her introspective.

She had always thought that flight and sailing were among mankind’s most significant inventions. Man was a creature of land, and with flight he conquered the air and with sailing, water. Thinking we controlled the elements, we vanquished the Earth she thought.

Her reverie was interrupted by her uncle’s leering smile. “Chandra check out the news. Any channel.” His good humor made her cringe, but she did turn on her monitor. The news commentator startled her out of her chair. “Yellow fin tuna have been discovered just west of Gibraltar, swimming in an unusually warm water currents.”

“The heat pump must already be working” she thought. She turned to her uncle and asked, “Is it sustainable?” She expected another one of his businessman dodges in reply.

“What?”

“The pump. Once you’ve got the temperature differentials working will the Gulf Stream propel itself?”

“The heat pump is like a pace maker. Once the Stream is working we expect to need to use it only sometimes.”

The news saddened her because it limited the scope of her activity. Disabling the heat pump off of Newfoundland would, if anything, make the Atlantic more variable, which in turn would threaten more life. She cursed her uncle and all those like him that forced her to act and made it so difficult for her to do so.

Chandra turned her back to her uncle, effectively ending their discussion. There was no point in trying to reason with him. The virtue of leaving things alone was something that he would never understand. For the remainder of the trip she did nothing but watch the sparkling blue ocean pass under the wings of her speeding vehicle.

They landed at Key Largo then took a boat to the inlet where the ancient Carysfort lighthouse was located. The inlet had become a construction site: its far end was lined with piles of soil. The rest of the beach was covered with metal containers. Here and there she could see robots crouched over assembling devices that she could not identify. The machines’ activities were overseen by a dozen people.

There was lots of motion. Most activity was focused on the pier, where 2 flat bottom boats were docked. One was covered with metal containers, the other with piles of a gelatinous material that she could not identify.

Out of politeness she asked for permission to go swimming. She entered the Caribbean beside the aged lighthouse. After just a moment in the water, it was as if the construction site did not exist at all. The rocky ocean floor was covered in a faint white shawl, which was a reminder that once this region had been a vast coral reef teeming with more life than had yet been found anywhere else in the galaxy.

Chandra swam further out toward where the reef used to be. Her path was clearly marked by signs of human intervention. The dusty calcium layer on the ocean floor gave way to regularly placed mounds of material that were battened down by baskets made of stones and wire. She swam next to one of the mounds to inspect it more closely. The material was highly alkaline. The mounds themselves were slightly elevated above the ocean floor. She dove deeper to inspect the gap between the ocean floor and the mounds. The water heated by several degrees as she approached. Periodically jets of water were sprayed out from the bottom of the mounds. She analyzed a sample from the water spray. It was full of protein. Though the protein resembled the organic detritus that blanketed the ocean here prior to industrialization the regularity of the molecular structure suggested that the material had been manufactured. The mounds were apparently some form of device to help with the reconstruction of this eco-system.

While she swam along the proto-reef a jellyfish swam into view. It looked very much like the giant one that she had seen in the Bay, but was about half the mass and glowed faintly red. She swam to within 20 meters of the animal then held her space. Suddenly the jelly launched in her direction. Startled, she swam backwards for several meters. The jelly overtook her in a second. It circled around her twice and then stopped a safe distance away from her. Though there were no eyes in its head, she felt it looking at her. The jellyfish’s inspection ended abruptly when a pod of dolphins crested the limestone mound behind her. The pod swam directly toward the jellyfish. The jellyfish raced away and the dolphins immediately dropped their pursuit. It was obvious that they were not trying to catch the jellyfish; but rather were trying to scare it away from their food source. Suddenly the jelly dashed over the top of the limestone mound and snared a baby dolphin in its tentacles. The jellyfish disappeared with its victim before the pod had time to realize what had happened.

She swam to the ocean floor in order to inspect the hot air vents, with the intention of trying to find a way to disable them. The vent that she chose to inspect was surrounded by a miniature school of sharks that was feeding off of the protein that it was expelling.

A long, thin boat stopped in the space above her, its shadow cutting off some, but not all, of the sunlight. Packages were being dumped into the ocean. She caught one in a net and cautiously examined it. It was a sunfish encased in a buoyant, translucent substance that she did not recognize. While she was examining the sunfish several blooms of different types of jellyfish appeared around her. They inspected the packages and then began to tear them open. Some fish swam free. Others were ingested by the jellies. Then the sea darkened again. The ocean above the feeding frenzy turned milky. At the moment the downward falling milky water contacted the jellies they recoiled as if in pain. In an instant all of the jellies were gone. The remaining translucent packages dissolved and a host of creatures from the old Carysfort ecosystem emerged. She swam up to one school of miniature tuna to investigate. They were eating the packages they had been encased in, which seemed to be made of some form of engineered plankton. She looked at her scanner: the water had become significantly more alkaline.

A group of moon jellies hovered at the edge of the milky sea. In the middle of the group Chandra saw a much larger invertebrate. She swam toward the bloom, to investigate. The creature’s movements seemed wrong, somehow. They were more listless than the other invertebrates that she had swum with. She moved still closer and realized why: the jellies were dead. She thought to herself, bitterly, “We are recreating this habitat with the techniques of a god and the sensibility of an animal.”

Chandra swam around the jellyfish corpses taking detailed scans for her records.

Once her scan of the jellyfish corpses was complete she drifted back to the vents on the sea floor. If she wanted to undermine this project she could do worse than to begin here.

As she went to work destroying the vent, a pod of miniature dolphins appeared. They were attracted by curiosity about her. When they noticed the vent they immediately swam down to it and began to feed. The genetically engineered creatures appalled her. Her uncle was recreating nothing at all: these weren’t the creatures that thrived here before the oceans had become acidic. These were constructions. Yet, to her scans the genetically modified dolphins were indistinguishable from those created by nature.

The presence of these dolphins, like the presence of any other life form, challenged her actions. If she destroyed this vent she was threatening these creatures just as much as leaving it alone threatened the jellyfish. Her uncle had forced her to act and made it impossible for her to do so. She put away her tools and left the damaged but still functioning vent to its fate.

She returned to the shore just north of the Carysfort lighthouse in the late afternoon. There was far less activity than when she had left. The industrial robots had packed themselves away and what few humans remained were quietly preparing to leave.

When she emerged from the water she was greeted by three security robots. Her travel visa had been revoked. Though Satish did not say farewell to her in person, he did let her borrow one of his more versatile vehicles for her flight to the Lagrange Spaceport. She wished to inspect the Gulf Stream on her way into space, so her uncle’s parting gift was appreciated. While waiting for her clearance to leave the atmosphere, her vehicle floated over the Atlantic Ocean. She read the news. The top story was about a bloom of giant jellyfish which had washed up onto the Carolinas. Over 100 kilometers of beach were affected. Many scientists insisted that this was a sign that the Atlantic Ocean was returning to health.

As her craft flew east over the Gulf Stream she noticed a huge, brown smear of water that stretched across the horizon, from her uncle’s mine in Dover to the Caribbean. As her vehicle moved over the Azores she noticed another smear moving exactly perpendicular to the calcium laced Gulf Stream: a tremendous bloom of jellies was swimming into the Atlantic Ocean’s acidic depths. She widened the scope of her analysis and saw one more bloom also moving toward the mid-Atlantic. As she watched the blooms merged together. “Perhaps they will survive after all”, she thought. Chandra’s eyes were glued to her monitor as her ship left the atmosphere and entered space; still she could see the bloom of jellies.

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