Office

Bach leaned back, tipping the front legs of his chair well off a floor that looked for all the world like rugged grey granite, overgrown with lichens and cross-hatched with pale orange pine needles.  After the night he’d had, even the presence of feminine company did not keep him from inhaling his breakfast.

Haley, on the other hand, merely picked at hers, and between long pauses at that. Bach was too tired to feel any embarrassment at the possible comparison between them.  “It’s hard to believe,” he observed, “that anything has happened.”

“Mm,” the young Archdruid mumbled around a fork’s worth of fish.  She gulped it down before trying to speak.  “When my mum gets up, she’ll wake to all the evidence she’ll ever need to justify her reclusive ways.”

Haley skewered another chunk of filet only to hold it motionless in the air a few inches from her mouth.  With the other hand she moved to wipe at her face.  Bach hadn’t been paying her much mind, given the view from where they sat, but her motion caught at his attentions.  Where her hand came away, Bach thought he saw the faintest hint of moisture in a streak across her face.  “Sorry,” she apologized.

“Huh?  No!  Nothing to be sorry about,” Bach nearly fell over himself to say.  “What’s wrong?”

Haley gave him a weak smile before popping the half-bite of fish into her mouth.  She hardly even chewed it before swallowing, choking out a pair of coughs after the fact.

“It’s nothing really,” she said after regaining her composure.  “Mum’s not much for tuning into the wireless, so it’s more than likely that in an hour or two, she’ll stroll into Blue Hill on one errand or another, and find some of the town missing.”

After a thoughtful pause, she added more.  “For some reason, that made me sad.  I know she will be.  Recluse though she may be, she still cares a great deal about almost everything and… and she’d likely tell you that my sister and I did not fall far from the tree on that.  I know it’s stupid, but it makes me sad to think about it.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Bach said in complete honesty.  “I think I’m kind of the same way.”

Haley caught his eyes in a level look, pausing before going for yet another fragment of salmon.  “I believe it,” she said, “but I suspect you tend to keep that kind of thing to your lonesome.”

Bach let the chair back down onto all four of its wooden legs, leaning forward now instead of back.  Her observation had been surprisingly blunt, if not untrue.  Somehow, he didn’t mind it coming from her.  “So I’m introverted,” he trailed off, letting her fill in the rest.

“Oh, oh,” she waved her fork through the air even as she smiled more broadly than he’d seen quite a while — not that he’d been around her all that long.  He sure felt like he had been, strangely enough.  “I didn’t mean to judge.”

Bach didn’t really think she had, and forced a smile of his own to show her as much.

After further pause, Haley went for what looked to be the last bit of fish left on her glossy green keratin plate.  “At any rate, I’m rather afraid to look at all the damage,” she began to say before interrupting herself by downing the morsel.  Then she continued, “all the damn sour damage that has been done.”  She pushed her plate aside.  “Now that I have time to sit down and actually think… I find that I don’t want to.  I find… I find that I would like to avoid any news of how the mainland has suffered.”

Bach could understand that, and said as much, if not in so many words.  “Yeah.”

Haley leaned forward, curled her arms under one another, flat across the top of her dark wooden desk, and lay her head down with face buried.  She remained this way for quite a while, only breathing.  This left Bach to wonder at what he should do with himself if she fell asleep on him.  Finally, she flipped her head onto one side, facing toward Bach, looking right at him unabashedly.

“Overjordan?” Haley did not pull her eyes away from Bach even as she summoned the city’s virtual intellect.  After a few moment’s likely processing of servers somewhere deep within the city’s core, a figment appeared on her desk in the form of a small and probably extinct variety of turtle.

Bach could not help but verbalize his surprise.  “Overjordan is a turtle?”  No sooner had he asked than the ethereal animal shot him a glare from just over the hump of its shell.

Haley grinned at him sideways but, when the turtle turned back to her, she looked it in the eyes instead.  “City… at our current pace, how far are we from the Northeast Channel’s outer edge?”

“Just shy of thirty hours, Archdruid Diaz.”  It spoke with a scholarly voice which came off, to Bach, as somehow appropriate for this otherwise imaginary being — this representation of the city’s public interface.

“That’s more than forever,” Haley cursed.  “City, would you relay some requests for me?  I’m just about talked out…”

“Of course, Lady Diaz.”  The city’s interface spoke as if having mastered the niceties of modern times.  Bach had to surmise that its web of processors must be at least a few years old, what with it speaking so naturally as this.

“Thank you,” Haley said.  “Please ask Mayor Edgecombe to make his hovercraft available to my staff again.  Let him know that it is my wish to take the cetacean husks out along the continental precipice well ahead of the city.”

Haley’s significant pause served as indication that she’d finished that particular message.  “Next,” she continued, “Find someone to intercept Laney Diaz.  She needs continue with the task I’ve already assigned to her, but I’d like to have the two cases she carries brought to me here instead.”

“Is that all?” the city’s reptilian avatar asked.

Haley thought that over for a moment, but eventually answered.  “That’s all my messages.  What news of last night’s tsunami?”

The turtle did not reply immediately, likely waiting while the city compiled a list of what information it could gather.  Finally, “As of this speaking, there are four hundred and fifty six thousand, one hundred and twenty two personal claims on file regarding incidents along the Union’s eastern coast lines, eleven thousand and seventeen personal claims on file regarding incidents among the many Union island protectorates, and one hundred and ninety one personal claims on file regarding incidents occurring in this city.”

After such a long statement, Bach demoted his estimate of the city’s virtual intelligence a notch or two.  It still hadn’t quite learned how best to optimize its sentence structures.

Haley interjected before it said anything more, “And those are just personal claims.  What of distress pings?  And merge your results, please.”

“Of course, Lady Diaz,” it said again.  “All combined agencies are receiving a total seventeen million, five hundred and eleven thousand, six hundred and seventy six distress pings, plus or minus twenty five hundred.”

Bach had to curse out loud, but Haley said nothing — and for quite a while at that.  She’d gone glassy-eyed, but otherwise held her composure intact.  Eventually, there came another question.  “Last wave reported in Boston?”

“Given other simultaneous strikes that were reported elsewhere,” the turtle answered, “the last wave is calculated to have struck Boston two hours and thirty eight minutes ago.  No actual reports were file from that location, however.”

Haley continued her questions.  “What is the furthest reach of the first known wave?”

“Landfall is expected in Portugal within thirty minutes,” replied the reptilian figment.  To that, it added more information of its own choosing.  “Evacuations along western Europa and northern Brasil coastlines are largely complete, thus containing the anticipated majority of human casualties to the Atlantic-American coastline and islands.”

Haley sighed.  “Our pain goes to some good, at least,” she said, likely trying to put as good a face as she could on a terrible situation.

“Good for Europa and Brasil, you mean.”  Having assumed her meaning, Bach had not quite phrased what he’d said as a question.

Haley pushed herself up off her desk, nodding as she rose.  “Aye,” was all she said to him before focusing on the turtle once again.  “Overjordan… another message, if you will.”

“Of course, Lady Diaz.”

“Please submit a request directly to Congress.  Requisition for me an open line on nano-soup supplies.  Tag my request urgent, and note that I do not yet know how much I may need.  Just that I want whatever I can get whenever I find out that I need it.”

“Any specific recipient?”  The city’s avatar displayed uncommon wisdom in asking this.

“Khloe,” Bach breathed with just enough volume to be heard.

Haley nodded at him, but continued to speak to the figment reptile.  “Send to the ecostasis committee, of course, and copy Representative Abraham and his assistant Kalitzakis directly.”

“Of course, Lady Diaz.”  Though the turtle might have learned not to overuse a person’s station too often, Bach thought, it could stand to vary its acknowledgments a bit.  As if sensing a possible reprieve, the city’s avatar followed up with, “Is that all?”

Haley nodded tiredly.  “That is all.  Thank you.”

The turtle nodded and animated its departure by blowing away into a fine dust.  Bach found it odd that an artificial intellect would indulge in such an embellishment as that.  Still, “Seventeen million?”  He felt ill over that particular figure.  “I don’t want to wonder how many of those pings are grey.”

“Me either,” Haley said as she pushed herself up out of her chair.  “At the very least, that seventeen million includes many injured or distressed survivors… though we can’t hope to expect that they will all come through the aftermath intact.  Worse, for every one of those seventeen million that did survive, there may be two more who’ve fled to safety but will have no home or livelihood to return to once all is said and done.  Hell, could be more than that.  I can only guess, really.”

Bach could find no appropriate reply for, or comment to, any of that.  So, after some moments, Haley continued.  “Those figures will be changing for weeks, I’m sure.  It’ll be a long time before the full extent of the damage is known.  And I don’t mean just directly, but also long term and, in particular, unexpected consequences.”

“Yeah,” breathed Bach by way of a reply.

“Ecologically… economically… emotionally… the ramifications will go on and on, I’m certain.”  Haley moved around her desk, and then sat down upon its corner closest to where Bach sat.  Putting hands upon her knees, she leaned closer.  “Do you understand what happened out there last night?”

Bach wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at.  “Maybe?”

She almost grinned at that.  Rather, the corners of her lips twitch as if they meant to.  “You are familiar with methane clathrates, no?”

“I’ve heard of them,” Bach replied.  “Arctic stuff, right?  Burning ice?”

“Yes… well, and no.  When water gets so cold or so dense, methane interlocks with the stuff as it freezes to form something like ice.  Deep down, however, sediment collects along the bottom where the water is at its coldest.  Go down deep enough under all that sediment, and things start to get warmer again.  But, right in the middle these methane clathrates form, kept frozen by the dense water above.  This only occurs if things get especially cold, or especially well pressurized.  Too little pressure or too little cold, and they melt away… dissociate, to be precise.  The arctic and polar landscapes are the exception, more or less, due to exceptional cold.  You on my slide so far?”

Bach nodded, “Yeah, I follow.”  Chemistry and physics were no small part of his work, but environmental engineering had not been all that pertinent to his particular path of education.  Still, nothing about what she’d said so far was too much of a stretch for him.

“Well enough.  Wherever conditions are right for the formation of clathrates — the methane sort, that is — eventually it gets warm enough beneath them to keep them from forming, and so you get gaseous methane instead.  Large pockets or even extensive layers of the stuff, not unlike natural gas in other parts of the world, under different conditions.  The clathrates above lock away the methane, and what little seeps upwards does so at such a slow pace that methanotrophs eat it all up.”

“You said that word before,” Bach interrupted.

“Methanotrophs?,” Haley half-asked.  “Aye, bacteria or archaea who consume methane as part of their biological processes… occasionally also called methanophiles.”

“Right,” Bach dithered, allowing her to continue.

“Mm… well, if you change the conditions in the water just enough — either by lessening the pressure, or by increasing the temperature — the clathrates destabilize and dissolve away, often leaving behind unstable sediments under which lurk large amounts of methane gas that would like nothing more than to punch upwards under all that pressure.  The stuff is lighter than air, you know.”

She paused for breath before continuing.  “Anyhow, aside from the fact that methane is more potent a greenhouse gas than its more common cousins — and eventually oxidizes down into both — a sudden dissociation that occurs along a continental precipice… that is, where they are most likely to happen due to the unique combination of depth and temperatures required… it can send large stretches of shelf collapsing down into the deeper oceans even as they burp up flammable hydrocarbons.”

“That’s what happened late yesterday afternoon.”

“Aye, the fireball seen just beyond the horizon.  That was the methane igniting after having breached the ocean surface, probably from stray lightning.  Anything that wasn’t incinerated by the short blast may have suffocated soon after, what with all the oxygen consumed in the process.  But yeah, somewhere along the edge where the George’s Bank drops away into the deep Atlantic, an unknown clathrate shelf gave up the ghost.  The methane pushed up from below, and the combination of the two set a submarine landslide off like a sluggish avalanche multiplied in size by ten times the unimaginable.”  Again, she paused as if seeking more words. “Picture a whole mountain and several of its neighbors suddenly falling away.”

“You’ve a way with words,” Bach surprised himself by saying.

“Sorry,” she replied to that, though she grinned in spite of her apology.  Bach couldn’t figure at what she would be sorry about.  “Anyhow, that’s the first problem.”

Bach had figured that wouldn’t be the whole of it — not with him here instead of back home trying to rebuild the now island town of Castine.  “What’s next?”

Haley slumped a bit, letting her arms bend and elbows bear the brunt of holding her up.  She let her head fall, hair rolling down before the front of her face.  She looked down, perhaps at the figments of pine needles and bedrock or, maybe, right through them and on into imagined spaces beyond.  Being a habit that Bach himself shared, he recognized the signs.

After a few moments, she spoke again.  “Well, not all the methane leaves the water in big blow of bubbles.  Some of it remains in the water at a molecular level.  In the meantime, some of it oxidizes, stripping the water of oxygen and adding carbon dioxide in its place, making the surroundings more acidic and killing off a lot of the microscopic organisms that hold up the base of the food chain.”

“If that and the collapse of the food chain above them were not bad enough, there are multiple ways by which it can get worse, depending on circumstances too difficult to predict.  All the dying creatures would add a lot of sudden nutrition to the water, causing a bacterial bloom.  At the same time, all the methane in the water might cause yet another kind of bloom.  In either… or frankly any case I can think of, oxygen is sapped, and more and more things get killed off.  If these conditions were to persist, another generation of anaerobic methanotrophs could potentially move in, and these produce poisonous gases as a result of sulfate consumption.  This occurs naturally in some places, like various poorly circulated lakes… or routinely off the coast of Old Namibia.  I don’t even necessarily know if,“ she stessed, “it can occur in the Gulf of Maine, much less how long it would take to build up.”

Bach could put two and two together.  “It wouldn’t matter.  By then the gulf may have been wiped clean of everything the recovery projects have finally been making progress with.”

“Right right,” she said, now rocking her frame from side to side, head swinging smoothly back and forth.

Bach had to wonder if she was alright.  Whatever the case, she had no problem continuing to hold up the lion's share of the conversation.

“Beyond all these things, human beings tend to think almost exclusively about their own immediate problems… but our problem out here would eventually boil over if nothing is done about it.  Already, millions have been harmed or otherwise displaced, but if the only recently rebuilt gulf fish stocks disappear because of this… well, already hungry people may well starve just when relief is suddenly in dire need.”

Every word had Bach slouching incrementally lower in his chair, as if weighed down by everything he’d heard.  “Throw a hell of a lot of frightened and dislodged people right into the middle of a food shortage, and you’ve got even larger problems brewing.”

“Aye,” Haley acknowledged.  “And one more thing as well.”

“What’s that?”

“Why do you think this happened in the first place?  We’ve seen evidence of slumps in the prehistoric past, sure… but why now?”

Bach had to talk this out with himself.  “You said that the clathrates that cap the gaseous methane and hold the unstable slopes together exist only under certain conditions.”

Haley stopped swaying before bending her neck upwards so as to level a look at him from her slumped-over position.  On that face she wore a knowing grin and Bach thought that, just maybe, the figment gemstone floating before her forehead might be glowing from within.  He couldn’t decide if it was or not, but there was something subtly different about it.

“And?”  She coaxed him to continue.

“Well, those conditions would have to change.”

“Aye…” she drawled the syllable out into a question.

“Either the water pressure would have to drop, or the water temperature would have to increase.  Either… or both enough for the clathrates to melt.”  Bach basically knew where this was going.  “Warming ocean waters,” he suggested.  “Climate change.”

Had pulled herself erect once again, and stretched both arms out above her head.  She groaned before finishing.  “Almost certainly.  The last couple of decades, the pressure has been off as technology has cleaned things up a bit, on the surface at least.  What with the multidecadal oscillation, cooler temps had convinced the guilt-burdened masses of their innocence once again.”  She shot each arm out wide, “Surprise!”

Her thin humor did little to paint over what Bach thought might well be a deep underlying anger.  The topic of climate change must be of particular pain to her.  Of course, Bach conceded to himself in thought, she had plowed on through God knows how much higher education to become a druid… and an Archdruid at that.  He put into words the thought that came next.  “This is your life, isn’t it?”

If anything, she looked surprised by the question.  “I guess it is,” she admitted after a lingering pause.  “To mend it,” she reversed after a moment’s consideration.  “Not to cause it, you know.”

Bach chuckled, and she broke out in another grin — a grin that fled all too quickly.

“All humor aside, the edge of the Gulf of Maine is not well known, among ocean climate experts, as a likely spot for this kind of incident.  In spite of that, here it is, and no one was prepared for such an event at all.  If it can happen in a relatively unlikely place such as this, where else will it occur?”  She panted out several breaths, escalating in her agitation.  “Oceans are warmer everywhere… not just here.”

Bach guessed at her meaning, “This could be just the first of many.”

Haley nodded.  “I sure as hell can’t say it won’t happen again.  It would be far more prescient to say; there’s no way it won’t.”

Bach slumped even further into his chair — so far so that his feet touched the corner of Haley’s desk, right between where her legs dangled from her perch at its corner.

“So,” he began, attempting to summarize the totality of woe that might come of what he’d heard.  “First, tons of people get swept away by a tidal wave.  Villages and cities are knocked over.  Then the water gets deprived of oxygen, killing all the little things that all the big things need to eat… meaning there’s no sustainable stock of big things left for us to eat, just when a planet already on a severe diet needs new emergency supplies.  If worse comes to worst, poison gas might exude from the depths.  One can then top all that off with a sudden renewal of public panic over the end of the world via ecological disaster.”

“A wonderful equation, that.”  Again, Haley let her head drop and likely just then noticed his legs stretched out, feet propping him up in his chair.  She swung her legs to either side, and let them bump against his.

Bach nearly fell out of his chair, startled by the unexpected contact.  “Hah,” Haley barked out a genuine laugh before erupting in outright giggling.

Bach regained his composure and, though he wondered at this woman who could swing from burdened and serious to simple mirth, he also found himself charmed by her.  He almost wished he hadn’t overreacted — that he hadn’t pulled away.  That brief contact had been nice.

“Sorry,” the young woman finally said.  “I don’t mean to make light of anything.”

“Don’t apologize,” Bach shot back.  “I don’t know why,” he admitted, “but your laugh made me feel better about the whole thing.”  Just saying so was very much out of character for him — and yet, he did not feel compelled to second guess himself over this admission.  “So we have to do something about this.”  He deflected, stating this as a matter of fact.

“Aye.  Though it does not solve the larger problem, we can at least hope to save the food supply that we’ve spent a generation trying to rebuild here.”  Haley practically launched herself off the corner of her desk, landing solidly on both feet.  “We will do what we can do until we are either done, or can do no more.  How does that sound?”

Bach wondered at how he could feel emboldened in the face of such disaster as he’d seen only just the night before.  Still… he did.  “That sounds like a plan.”

Haley waved a hand through the air as she wandered away from her desk.  Dawn had passed back as they’d taken up the freshly delivered breakfast.  And now the sun, figment though it may be from their perspective, had grown a bit overwhelming.  In a blink, the forest and bedrock were gone, leaving only fairly spartan walls surrounded them.

Bach supposed that if one spent most of their time in such an office looking out across hilly Maine scenery, there really would be little need for any further decoration.

Even so, it turned out that the full periphery of Haley’s office, save right in front of the hallway door, was ringed in real grass — not unlike that found up in the core tower’s hallways.  This actually surprised him some, since they light he and Haley had been seeing up until that moment didn’t exist even so much as an artificial projection.  No, it had simply been in their minds.

Suddenly curious, Bach looked around and finally found that the room’s real light source came via shafts in the ceiling — shafts that let refracted sunlight penetrate even into the inner core like this.  Even as Bach looked on, Haley wandered over to stand under one of those shafts of light — standing right on the grass itself, and barefoot at that.  Somewhere along the way, she’d toed off her shoes.

Eyes closed, Haley let the sun’s light, indirect though it may be from here, cast itself across her face.  “Even though my wetware can tell my brain that my skin feels the warmth of figment sunlight,” she said, “I’m still able to tell a subtle difference between the imagined versus the real thing.”

She smiled as she said this, and Bach could not help but do the same, even if it was only for his own benefit.

“The scenery is nice,” Haley went on, “but, at this time of day — especially during the summer — the proxy sun is right in my eyes when I sit at my desk.”

“Hah,” Bach breathed out by way of amused reply.  “I see.”

Haley opened her eyes and turned to look at him as she leaned into the wall, letting friction slow her descent to the floor.  Sitting on the grass, under that shaft of very real sunlight, a serious cast overtook her countenance once again.  It was not quite a spent look, and she did not appear upset as she had before.  “I’ve tried to think this through,” she began, “but I keep running into problems with my ideas on how to cut this disaster down to size.”

“How so?”

She exhaled a long slow breath before continuing.  “I told you, and the Mayor before you, that we might be able to oxidize the methane in the water using hydroxyl radicals.  You remember?”

“I think so,” Bach replied.  “I’m not particularly familiar with them, or what is involved, though.”

“That’s fine,” she came back.  “Essentially, the problem is; if we want to prevent a bacterial bloom, we need to remove either methane or oxygen from the water.  If we tried to remove the methane from the water, we could tackle it using the native oxygen.  Rather, reinforce oxidation that’s already going on down there… hurry it up.”

“But, though that’ll take the methane out of the water, it will also,” Haley stressed, “take oxygen out, too.  Again, we’ve just caused the thing we want to prevent.  Hydroxyls, though very, very short lived due to their reactivity, are dangerous to living things.  They may kill off a fair portion of the very beasties we want to preserve in the water… if not quite to the same degree, I’d be willing to wager.”

“Though attacking water molecules with ionized hydrogen can create hydroxyls on the spot — which wouldn’t consume oxygen — it would produce more water and more carbon dioxide.  Rather,” she continued after deep intake of air, “we would be introducing more acid to the water, and reducing its salinity which, in turn, reduces the water density.  The latter part doesn’t concern me too much, under these limited circumstances, but adding even more carbon to the water would only further the damage that led to the sharp decline in life in the oceans in the first place.”

Bach had found himself mesmerized by this woman.  He’d encountered women before who could talk up such a storm, sure… but all that and on such an unusual topic.  Suddenly, he hoped he hadn’t been grinning dumbly the whole time.

“That’s a lot to take in,” he declared in an attempt to assure his composure.  After a moment of thought, he added more.  “Wait… the whole problem here is with oxygen being stripped from the water in multiple ways, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Are the methano-thingies… are they harmful other than that they consume oxygen at the same time they metabolize the methane?”  Bach thought there might be a simpler tack to all this.

Haley furrowed her brows a bit.  “Not really, no.  If anything, they are a crucial part of the carbon cycle in the sediments below.  Things would go haywire if they weren’t in there.  It’s the anaerobic methanotrophs that take over after they’ve sucked all the oxygen out of the water that are directly problematic to other forms of life.”

“So what if we put the oxygen back into the water when they’re done eating the methane?”

At first, Haley only stared at him — long enough to put him ill at ease.  “That probably would be easier, wouldn’t it?”  Her expression was unreadable at best.

Bach wasn’t sure how to reply to this.  “I really have no idea if that’ll work, but it seems to me that recycling relatively stable oh-two molecules would be easier for the nanites.”

Haley stood, swept the grass stains off her hydrophobic knit pants, and crossed the room to stand uncomfortably close to him.  “No… instead of trying to kill the methane-eaters, we give them all the air they need and they do the work.  When there’s no more methane to eat, they die out regardless of how much oxygen is left!”  Then she mauled him in a hug, nearly plunging him out of his chair.  “That’s one hell of a fuzzy idea, Bach!”

A knock came at the door, accompanied by a figment icon signifying the presence of someone beyond.  “Door’s ajar,” Haley called out with surprising volume as she let Bach go.

A young acne-afflicted boy with blazing red hair opened the door experimentally.  “Hello?”

“Don’t be shy,” Haley said as she waved him in.

“I have a delivery?”  He said this as if asking question while walking in through the door.  In each hand he held an aluminum cast briefcase.

Bach stood and closed the gap between himself and the much younger man, reaching out for and collecting each case.  “Thanks,” he told the already nodding boy who then replied with a nervously broken thanks of his own.  In a blink he was out the door and gone.