Scrum

Even in spite of the queasiness it brought to the pit of her stomach, Khloe persisted in staring out over the rear edge of the faux leather couch.  Just beyond lay the thick glass that lined the whole outer edge of Mayor Edgecombe’s office, from floor to ceiling.  Those first few days had been tough, and looking out over the sea of translucent solar glass nearly a hundred meters below… well, the damned sight had only unsettled her further.

At first, she had to dare herself to look, though glancing nearly anywhere else in this all-glass enclosure hardly hid the fact of their lofty perch.  The knowledge that, far below, there was no solid ground to be had at the base of this spire, hadn’t helped either.

Still, she looked anyways.  Every morning she attended this same meeting with the Mayor, the Archdruid, and her pet engineer.  Every morning then, what with her growing increasingly bored with the god-forsaken sloth’s pace of progress beneath the waves, Khloe chose to challenge her guts to yet another self-inflicted bout of nausea.  As such, every morning she felt it just a little bit less.

At least she'd beaten the most irrational of her early fears.  That first time up here had embarrassed her to no end.  So much so, in fact, that she’d not shown up when called for the second day’s meeting.

Congressman Abraham had said nothing — neither he, nor any of the others — when she did show up the day after, and the day after that.  Perhaps they understood that she wanted no sympathy.

“Even with a second recycler template in hand, growth of the first major posse remains only in its earliest of stages.  We’re not quite to twenty-five percent consumption of the original soup we’ve given Sir Kavanagh for use.”  So spoke that Diaz woman — the Archdruid of Overjordan, Haley.  Every time it occurred to her, Khloe thought the other woman’s name somehow ill fit the station she’d achieved.  Haley the Archdruid?  Khloe breathed out her momentary disdain.

Rolling her head around so as to look upon the other occupants of the room, Khloe took in the now familiar scene.  As usual, the engineer, Bach… he sat in one corner and rarely said anything when not otherwise spoken to.  For someone who’d gone out of his way to save her skin, even if by mechanical proxy, he seemed to her to be far too passive.  Maybe even shy?  She wanted to warm up to him, and yet he only ever opened up when sharing the druid’s direct company.  

And Haley, also as usual, paced the inner periphery of the office, all the while waving her hands about as if demonstrating her energetic femininity.  If anything, Khloe rather thought that she might be showing off for this Kavanagh fellow and, once again, wondered if either of them really grasped the chemistry that brewed there.  Probably not, she concluded to herself.  

The Mayor moved an inch or so.  For a man as wiry and vivacious as he was while on his feet — even in spite of his advanced age — he sat as like a statue once plunked in that seat and behind his desk.  It pained her to attempt to sit so still as he, and so she gave up after just the first few attempts.

“That’s a little slower than I thought you’d said… earlier on,” Edgcbome said from behind the steeple he made of his fingers.  

Haley rounded on him, if not with any obvious irritation or angst.  No, she’d long since demonstrated a simple straight-forwardness when talking to others.

“Aye,” she began.  “At first, we were reluctant to cut too deeply into the soup that we’d assigned to this recovery project.  That is, to produce these batches of assemblers instead.  We wanted to know that our assumptions about the behavior of the methanotrophs would pan out if we followed after Bach’s suggestion.”

After a breath, Haley continued.  “Samples were taken directly from the sediments at the side of the methane eruption.  They were brought here and we did our best to maintain temperature and pressure conditions as we introduced methane into these test habitats.”

The Druid woman again paused to breathe.  That’s one thing that Khloe noticed about her in particular — that she could really go on a tear, sometimes having to remind herself to suck down more precious oxygen.  Khloe found this equally a point of amusement as well as irritation, depending on her own mood at the time.  Currently, she imagined herself projecting a thick aura of the latter.

“A simple initial design brought to life by Bach proved fairly successful at constructing filamentary pathways not only through much of the water column, but along sedimentary surfaces as well.  These we used initially as charged highways for recyclers, thus reducing the amount of time and capacity they devote to fueling themselves… rather, increasing the time they could bend upon recycling water into hydrogen and oxygen.  This did increase the overall yield by half, which is excellent.  So, we’ve gone and devoted more of the soup to the production of a side posse of assemblers.”

“So that simply takes time and resources away from producing the recyclers themselves.”  The Mayor likely already knew the answer to that which he didn’t quite phrase as a question.

“Aye,” Haley answered anyways.  “We’re giving over about ten percent.”

“So, that means this idea has genuine merit… this notion of letting the methane eaters gorge themselves and then filling in the oxygen gap after they've starved.”

“Mm.  In the case where we allowed microfauna to coexist with the methanophiles and, in the case where we reintroduced them after the bloom, their populations remained healthy so long as oxygen remained available.  If anything, absent the drawdown in oxygen without our interference, these bacteria do a wonderful job at cleaning the water out.  Furthermore, in all cases — even where we added substantial sulfates — the sulfate-reducing bacteria could not gain a foothold in the presence of oxygen.”  After another pause for breath, she added, “I rather think we’re in a fuzzy place with this plan.”

The Mayor parted his finger-steeple, freeing up a hand for an exasperated and dismissive rolling motion.  “I never thought I’d long for the days when everything was ‘cool’ or ‘rad.’”

Haley appeared only mystified.  “Sorry?”

“Nothing.  It’s nothing.”  After excusing himself from any further explanation of his complaint, he continued with his inquest.  “What of the methane in the ocean itself?  How long will it be before we deploy any of this?  For that matter, do we have any hope for a notion at just how long we’ll be at this?”

Haley appeared almost flustered under the rapid fire questionnaire.  “To be fair, it almost doesn’t matter now.”  She then took a moment to collect herself before going on.  “The majority of the methane reached the atmosphere where, thankfully, it exploded…”  

She likely meant to continue, but something about what she’d said didn’t make any damn sense to Khloe.  So, she interrupted.  “Thankfully?”

Haley turned to her.  “Well, in the greater scheme of things, yes.  Sadly, we still haven’t found one of our ships that was out that night… and likely may never.  But methane itself is a far more potent greenhouse gas than either carbon dioxide or water vapor.  Since warming has reached down so far into the depths to have caused this dissociation of the clathrates below the sediments, any further increase… say, by additional ‘hyper’ greenhouse gases… well, it would only eventually lead to more of the same, heaped upon itself in an accelerating cycle.”

Khloe had asked for it, she knew now.  Better not to have spoken up.  Still, “So why does that make the explosion a good thing?”

Haley blinked in her general direction before answering.  “Oh… well, the explosion was essentially nothing more than a very rapid oxidation of the gas.  It became both of the other aforementioned greenhouse gases.  Neither are anything we need any more of, certainly, but, at the very least, even combined they are not so bad as the methane itself.  That ignition and oxidation has mitigated the eruption’s climate impact for the time being.”

Khloe understood most of that, she supposed.  “Okay,” she nodded, eager to disengage herself from the other woman’s intense golden gaze.  While the young Archdruid came off as friendly and endearing, Khloe just couldn’t warm up to her, either.

All of a sudden, she felt altogether alone in this strange floating city.  She wanted, more than anything, to be back amongst the manipulable masses of Washington and Arlington.  Contact via the wireless, though qualitative, was nothing quite like the real thing.

Edgecombe injected his own interpretation.  “We got lucky in a strange sort of way.”  His tone turned toward the introspective.  “Even so, would a single eruption really have had such a dramatic effect?”

“Not a single one, no,” Haley answered.  “The problem here is that we’d no particular reason to even suspect that there’d be so much methane along these particular continental cliffs.”

“There are other spots where we know,” she stressed, “that there are massive reservoirs of the stuff.  If this spot has dissociated enough to let go, then so will many other places if they haven't already.  All of a sudden, there are ticking time-bombs surrounding the edges of every continent.”

“There aren’t enough oceanic cities to watch all these regions, much less react to direct eruptions.  Then, these submarine ‘burps’ occur far too fast to be directly prevented.  So most of the gas will reach and oxidize within the atmosphere, quickly or slowly as each case may be.  If enough of these occur, then we simply will not have the manpower or resources to prevent a runaway catastrophe.”

Bach finally spoke, and all heads turned, likely out of pure surprise.  He had a way of easily disappearing from people's awareness, always remaining so quiet.  “What?  We’re going to turn into Venus… or… something?”

Haley waved her arms in denial.  “Oh god, no.  There’s not enough carbon in our system for our world to go that far awry.  At least, there isn't enough above the crust.  And I don’t think humanity is anywhere near the point of being able to interfere with the climate within the mantle.”

When no one reacted to what she'd probably intended as humor, Haley took a breath and continued. “At various points in Earth’s past, carbon and oxygen and other various important gases have run the gamut of highs and lows.  Meanwhile, life persisted.  Rather… life recovered.”

“It’s just the rate of change itself that is dangerous.”  She turned away from Bach and back toward the Mayor.  “Imagine an electric train, if you will.  Were it moving along at a mere meter a minute then it would represent essentially no danger at all, even in spite of its unimpeachable forward momentum.  That same train, however — were it flying along at two or three hundred kilometers an hour — would absolutely obliterate anything caught in its path.  It’s the same with world climate.  It is and will always be on the move.  It’s how quickly it changes that determines how much death it leaves in its wake.”

The Mayor stood up from his chair.  “That’s well enough but, given my schedules, I’d like to try to keep these scrum meetings sweet and to the point.  No need for more lessons here and now.  I’m still not certain I’d heard an answer to where we stand in terms of deployment… when and for how long?”

“Well…” Haley began as she looked for support from Bach.  “What do you think?  A week and a half left on growth of the first parallel posses?”

The young engineer nodded.  “Probably almost exactly,” he said by way of reply. 

“Well then.  There, at least, is answer to when we can start.”  She’d likely meant to continue, but the Mayor interrupted her.

“Do we have to have a full batch in order to proceed?”

Haley didn’t answer right away.  “It’s a fair question, I guess.  Bach?”

Though the young engineer rarely put himself out into the middle of a conversation of his own accord — at least, that's as it appeared to Khloe — he didn’t shy away from being drawn in either.

“Yes and no, actually.”  In glancing Bach's way, Khloe once again felt that pang of guilt inside her — that sense that in feeling somewhat dismissive of him, she was doing something wrong.  I want to be rid of this turmoil, dammit all.

“What does that mean?” The Mayor spoke with unusual impatience today.  During most of their meetings over the past week, he and the Archdruid came off as downright chummy with one another.  Today, not so much…

“Sorry,” Bach said with palms held high in mock surrender.  “I mean to say that we need a full growth of assemblers in order to build the tensile pathways from the buoys on down into and along the sediments at the bottom where they will then construct anchors.”

“Once there, they will have largely done their job.  So, we might redeploy them into burrowing through any remaining clathrates they encounter.  Perhaps to take stock of what further danger remains buried down there.  Still, before these tendrils even reach the bottom, any amount of recyclers can be employed along their length.”

Khloe hadn’t heard the man say quite so much in any two combined meetings.  

“So we can’t distribute any oxygen until we have the full posse of assemblers,” Edgecombe postulated, “but as soon as their constructs are even partially complete, we can deploy any amount of recyclers.”

“Right,” both Haley and Bach replied in stereo.  That was something Khloe had noticed that they’d a talent for.  In earlier days, whenever it happened, the two would regard each other in momentary surprise.  But, not so much anymore.  It had become, if anything, almost anticipated.  Desired, perhaps?  More chemistry, maybe.  Khloe needed something more central to her own life to speculate about.  Again, she yearned for home.

“Oughtn’t we push the assemblers out as soon as possible then?  Forego recycler production until they are ready?”  Khloe had internalized a similar question just then, as well.

It was Haley who answered.  “At ten percent devotion, that’s basically what we are doing.  We’ll probably have them ready by end of tomorrow.”  

“Could you not simply have said that much, then?”  The Mayor had never looked as worn and drawn out as he did just then.  Khloe felt a momentary draft of empathy pass through her, but did not miss it when it was gone.  

“Sorry,” the pair said in unison once again.  Then Haley continued, “As for how long; we should remain as close as we dare get for… oh, I don’t know off hand.  Let’s just say two months for now.  We should remain to monitor the oxygen levels in the water during and — hopefully, that is — after the bacterial bloom.  I will not hazard a guess as to how long that will take.”

“We’ve already seen signs that the bloom has begun,” Haley continued.  “So we’ll at least not have to wait for that.  If things appear to be going well enough at the site of the eruption — along the George’s Bank, rather — then we may retreat back to the Jordan Basin and our usual activities.”

“Though… we’d probably have to keep a guard on site out here to keep us constantly appraised.”  Haley must have been just as aware of the Mayor’s unusual agitation as Khloe had, for she inquired after him.  “Is everything alright, Sir Mayor?”

At first he appeared bewildered, if only for a moment.  “The matter?  Sorry.  Mainland authorities have been leaning pretty hard on me for a number of things.  The Navy, in particular.”

“Oh?”  It sounded as though this was the first that Haley was hearing about any of this.  

Khloe, though — being proxy for her Congressman out here in the nowhere that is the Gulf of Maine, she’d not been spared those constant communications and negotiations.  The work had continued where her after hours life had not.

“Yeah,” she felt compelled to interject.  “Sir Abraham is up to his elbows in it as well.  Boston is nearly a ghost town after that tsunami.  And the suddenly homeless and jobless have fled inland — everywhere from the Maritimes to Florida — while several islands have been largely decimated.”

“Without power,” Khloe added, “and given that many of the local authorities have been just as wiped out as the natives themselves, Union militia have been called in all up and down the coast… in many cases, from as far away as the southern front.  They’re encountering looters and vigilantes all up and down the eastern seaboard.  They are even stuck, in some cases, guarding cities just barely inland.  That is, spots like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington… defending them from being overrun by refugees, and occasionally worse.”

Once she’d trailed off, the Mayor jumped in.  “Mm… whether anyone on solid ground wishes to admit it or not, it’s chaos.  Eighteen provinces were struck directly, if to varying degrees, and their inland neighbors are having difficulty finding places to house the displaced masses.”

“They’re already overpopulated, themselves,” Haley added.

“Right,” Edgecombe replied.  “Complaints about the availability of food and shelter are exponentiating, and tussles have erupted between those afflicted and local and Union authorities both.  Even the coast guard has been put on alert.  The word has gotten out that free-floating cities are relatively immune to tsunami. So, all of a sudden, we have people setting out on personal watercraft, expecting to be able to find these relatively small mobile communities drifting around on the surface of a very large ocean.”

“We’d have to turn them back even if any did find their way here,” Haley said.  “Our populations are strictly capped.”

“You know this,” the Mayor returned, “and I know this.  Many of these people in their rowboats even know this, but probably think that they couldn’t be possibly turned back once they’ve arrived.  Most, I don’t think, have even thought that far ahead.”

After a pause, the Mayor continued.  “At least with hurricanes, you can see it coming.  No one saw this coming, and no one was prepared.  The whole east coast has overgrown her coastlines, and set themselves up for just this kind of disaster.”

Bach spoke up next.  “I’d guess that these aren’t the only people who are having a fit.”

“No,” Khloe answered before the Mayor could.  “Sir Abraham has confessed to being torn about emergency bills hitting the house floor — stuff aimed at freezing various markets along the Pacific coast.  Housing, lending, and services.”

The Mayor found another opening at this point.  “Right.  The Rocky Mountain Stock Exchange hasn’t plunged much less steeply than did the Atlantic Exchange.  Half of the San Francisco peninsula has gone up for sale in just the past week and, of course, no one except the unscrupulous are buying.  News media feeds leapt all over the doomsday scenario in order to sell ads, and now that property values have plummeted overnight… well, now they’re back-pedalling as hard as they can.”

Khloe felt an ethereal tug on her proxy connection to the congressman.  Busy as he was, he must have overheard something of interest for, just then, he materialized in middle of the Mayor’s office, jumping right into the fray.

“I’ve overheard some of the last few statements,” he began.  Everyone in the room — save perhaps Bach who’d grown up knowing this man since before he was a representative — stiffened to attention, even Sir Mayor Edgecombe.  Knowing the middle-aged man almost as well as Bach probably did, Khloe knew that the congressman noticed and inwardly wished they’d just relax already.  Somehow, that knowledge hadn’t prevented her from sitting up straight either.

“I stepped away from committee for some air, as did several of the others.  There’s been no consensus, whatsoever, on what to do about the western panic.  Even if it were decided that we could not legally do anything to prevent people from leaving coastal communities, logistically there are problems.  The Rocky Mountain states don’t have the resources — water or food production — necessary to handle the potential exodus from either of the Bajas, nor from California where desalinization is already stretched to the limit.  Attempting to reverse transport water back up into the mountains would be prohibitively expensive in the short term.”

Haley took a seat on the edge of the Mayor’s desk.  “Given chronic droughts in parts of the Union core, it’s not too much of a surprise to me that generations of people have largely ignored the occasional speculative warning about living along the coastlines.  That a quakeless tsunami has not happened in recorded human history before now, for many, meant that it would never happen.  And, anyone who said otherwise was accused of only trying to wrangle some federal funding for their cushy ‘scientific’ livelihoods set apart from the quote-unquote, real world.”

Bach nodded silently from his corner.  And Khloe; she felt a momentary bite, having occasionally thought of the research community almost exactly in the way Haley had just cut against.  She even admitted this much, if without enough volume to get noticed.

“Anyways, what does the mainland want from us?" Haley asked.  "Can’t they see the criticality of our mission out here?”  Of course, Khloe knew she was referring to the gulf restoration project — not to mention, mitigation of the methane eruption more immediately.

Representative Abraham and Mayor Edgecombe jockeyed, by way of hands and nodding heads, over who would answer.  Eventually, it fell to the Mayor.

“Naturally,” the white-haired old man began, “the mainland is looking for a place to put refugees.  That, and resources to grab up in dealing with those on their soil.  Food, water… money even.  I tell them we cannot endure overpopulation here on the water, nor can we maintain those already living here without every resource we already have or routinely produce.”

Haley had something to say about that.  “We might be able to placate the mainland with volunteers to help ravaged communities.  Still, they’ll need to eat.  Whether here or there, it does not matter.  So any supplies we sent could only be to fuel those that go to help, and we cannot spare too many.  As everyone here I’m sure well knows, Overjordan’s purpose in the gulf must be considered non-negotiable.”

It seemed everyone did, as no one looked terribly inclined to contradict her.

After a lull, Haley spoke up once again.  “Sir Representative,” she began formally.  “What of our request for coast guard assistance in hunting down ping-beacons from Ay-Tee’s lost template containers?”

The Congressman’s avatar slumped his shoulders at the question, appearing almost defeated.  “I’ve managed to convince most of my committees to inject the request officially into some of these emergency relief bills, but they’re always almost immediately stripped out again.  Some see it, perhaps, as playing favorites — especially coming from me, who has in the past been involved with the very company on behalf of which these measures are being requested.  Meanwhile, others are trying instead to see that nanotech corporations amongst their own constituencies get closer to the top of the list when it comes to Union monies being spent.”

“The same old game,” the Mayor said with a sigh. 

“As always,” Sandy Abraham admitted.  “In any case, if you want my suggestion, it would be to go looking for them privately.  You’d probably find them all long before a bill is passed, much less acted upon.  Ol’ Dean doesn’t have a seaship anymore, and he’s put his shoulders into relief and reconstruction along the Penobscot bay and river anyways.”

“We may be able to do without,” Haley admitted.  “Still, if we could decrease our production time, we might stanch the wound here and find ourselves with time and resources to devote to the mainland.”

Whatever Haley thought about what she’d just said, Khloe saw nothing of it written on that blank face of hers.

“Whatever the case, though,” the young Archdruid continued, “the city… and we ourselves… we’re needed here and most especially now.”  After further pause for thought, and breath, she added something more.  “If those other states want their own corporations to get juicy federal grants, then you should dangle hints at Bach’s greater plan in front of their Representatives’ collective noses.”

Both the Mayor and Representative started at that.  It was Edgecombe who found the wherewithal to ask, “Do we even know how that might work yet?”

The Representative had been far too busy to have heard anything about this.  “What plan?”

This was the very thing that Khloe suspected had kept those two not-quite-lovebirds locked up in one or the other’s apartments late into the evenings these past few days — well beyond the end of all the overtime they’d been putting in.

Khloe herself had not been housed too far from either of them, and yet she hardly ever saw either much past the end of these morning meetings.  Early on, she’d tried to interweave herself between the pair — not out of any particular interest into what might otherwise be going on between them, but out of abject boredom.  They’d never turned her away but, in the end, she felt excluded — perhaps not intentionally, but by the heights of the topics they discussed, never having quite left work at the door.

A look was passed between Bach and Haley, but it was she who finally replied.

“Bach thinks that we can use assemblers to slowly build a network of microscopic wires along the sea floor which might serve two purposes.  First, this network would supply energy to hives of specialized nanites whose only purpose is to sniff the water for heightened levels of methane.  Unusual amounts of the stuff leaking into the water column might be indicative of future eruptions which, frankly, are potentially catastrophic for world climate regardless of whether they cause tsunami or not.”

“Secondly, if any other submarine landslides are caused along edges weakened by the dissociation of underlying clathrates… then, by way of broken circuits, we’ll at least not have to find out that there’s a tsunami’s on its way only when the first wave is coming ashore.  This first slump barely registered on seismographs at all.”

“Where would this be done?”  Representative Abraham tousled his own salt-and-pepper hair as he asked this.  

“Ultimately,” Bach interjected, “everywhere methane is believed to be trapped, regardless of whether the landscape itself would slump or not.  As Haley’s made clear to me,” he said, perking up Khloe’s ears with his familiar use of the Archdruid’s given name, “the long term damage of increased methane levels in the atmosphere far outstrips the immediate pain felt by damaged coastlines.”

Haley nodded to this.  “Losing the majority of worldwide human population over the next couple centuries… it’s well within the realm of possibility at this point.”

She rubbed her face after making this dire declaration.  “What we do here, by itself, is not going to turn the tide one way or another, save increase food supply for the mainland if our long-term mission in the gulf is a success.  No… I mean, whatever steps we take to mitigate the damage from this eruption may well become standard operating procedure in the near future.”

Surprised at such a statement, Khloe felt just a little hollow in her stomach.  That is, before another wave of nausea passed through that seemingly empty space.

“Sorry,” Haley continued.  “I’m tired, and the morning is young yet.  The reason I suggest you use this as a carrot with which to buy some cooperation from the inland states… it isn’t just because we need to get our way out here, but because we actually will need them on the job if we’re going to do even so little as build Bach’s early warning network along the sea floor.  If they want work, they’ll have it, no doubt.”

The Congressman nodded even as he squeezed his chin in a thoughtful gesture.  “If this is only an early warning system… well, can it do nothing to prevent the problem from recurring?”

Haley sat and thought for a moment.  “Not by itself, no,” she finally answered.  “Oceanic circulation is a slow process by any human standard.  Temperature shifts at the surface may take generations to seep down into the depths.  In any significant way, I mean.  It follows, then, that any fix we might attempt to employ up above would take just as long to take effect down there where it counts.”

“If it was warm enough in the depths to dissociate the methane clathrates along the outer edge of the George’s Bank, then it will remain so for the immediate future.  That means that there — as well as everywhere else in all likelihood — this will be an ongoing problem, and one that will counteract any progress we make above the water line as these eruptions continue to occur.  It could very well be decades before the next massive eruption.  Or, it might not.  Even if it were so long, however, it could easily be only half as long again until the next, and so on.”

And just like that, Haley caught herself.  “Sorry, I don’t know when I became so morbid.  Sirs and Lady,” she said, “Bach and I are not ignoring the problem.  Ideas have been tossed back and forth in regards to how to possibly prevent eruptions.  We’ve consulted others via the wireless, as well.  But, at the very least, if we know ahead of time that an eruption is likely, we can move one sea city or another as close as we dare, and be prepared to reduce the damage done.  That’s not nothing,” she added at the end, as if attempting to lift obviously suppressed spirits.

The Congressman nodded before tilting his head sideways — body language that Khloe instantly recognized.

Sure enough, he interjected.  “I’m needed back in committee,” he announced.  “Thank you, Lady Archdruid, for this additional ammunition.  I’ll play this as best I can.”  Then his figment turned to face Khloe herself.  “Lady Kalitzakis, I’ll probably be wrapped up with these guys well into the evening.  I’ve closed most of my offices as most regular legislation is benched for the time being.  See to it that you get some rest.”

Khloe gave her boss an affirmative nod and, with that, every living person in the room stood up.  

“I have quite the lineup myself,“ Mayor Edgecombe said.  “If that will do, I’m eager to hear more about possible methods of prevention on the morrow.”

Haley and Bach both nodded wordlessly.  Khloe, aside from an intention to indulge in one hell of a righteous nap, wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do with herself.  If only I were back in Washington!