By Andy Silber
Copyright © 2015 by Andy Silber
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Third Edition, 2017
Preface for the third edition
Welcome to The Dinosaurs’ Last Roar, a work of speculative fiction. In the two years since it was originally published, world leaders signed the Paris accord and President Donald Trump walked the US out. In the US, the party in power denies the basic science of climate change and are reversing the progress made during the Obama administration as quickly as possible. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t believe in environmental protection. At the same time, corporate America has largely embraced the inevitability of the transition to a low-carbon future, so progress continues to be made, albeit much more slowly than is needed. Given all that, it’s two years later and we’re still emitting much more carbon than our atmosphere can absorb; nothing has changed.
July 17th, 2025: Richland, Washington
The Professor calls out “Russell, run the diagnostics again”. Everyone calls Doctor Singh “The Professor” even though he’s been on a leave of absence from the University of Washington since we founded Second Sun Energy seven years ago. He still has an office on campus, but every time offices are reassigned he’s moved into a smaller one. Last time I stopped by to say “Hi” to the old gang I saw that his latest office is little more than a broom closet stuffed with boxes of reprints and old notes. Since he conceived of the standing-wave plasma fusion power system while on the faculty, UW gets a royalty from Second Sun, which might well amount to more than the entire budget of the physics department, so no one complains about his still having an office.
When Professor Singh asked me to join him at Second Sun it was a no-brainer to say “Yes”. He had great ideas, but couldn’t tell a soldering iron from a seven-iron for golf. I had done a good job in taking his ideas and turning them into real prototypes while at the Physics Department shop, and we knew that if Second Sun was to be successful, he’d need my help. We also knew there was no way we could start this company in Seattle. We needed space and a local government that wouldn’t freak out if we built a fusion reactor in an office park. We figured that Richland was the place to go. The High School team name is “The Bombers”, a reference to the work at the Hanford reservation building nuclear bombs. My wife was not so keen on moving to Richland: her thinking was this was tantamount to the prison sentence. “The only culture is in the yogurt” and “It’s too hot and dry”. Amanda is a Seattle native and has the webbed toes to prove it. I convinced her that this project was important enough to make the sacrifice and our kids would love the access to the outdoors. I also agreed that if she was miserable we would leave after 5 years and if she was unhappy we’d leave after 10. Luckily for Second Sun, she’s only mildly dissatisfied. It’s amazing how great Mexican food and weekends on the damp side of the mountains can raise the spirits. She’s also overjoyed that our eldest, William, is following in my footsteps by studying electrical engineering at UW: Amanda bleeds Husky purple.
“You heard the Professor, let’s run the diagnostics again.” I called out, and the team ran the diagnostics for the third time in an hour. It was just something to do while waiting for the President. Not in person of course. She’s too busy with the Greenland ice dam or the crisis in Bangladesh or something. Or she just didn’t want to come out to Washington State’s inland desert in July, when it’s 110 F. Or maybe it’s the leaky tanks of radioactive waste left over from building the A-bombs. Whatever, she’s not really here, but she’s going to throw a virtual switch to start the world’s first commercial fusion reactor.
We’re crammed into a room that looks like a low-budget mission control in an office park about a mile from our reactor, which is located inside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and my wife insisted that we have a safety buffer of at least a mile. In addition to a dozen engineers, scientists and technicians looking at screens, we have news crews from all the major networks, including Google, NBC, and PBS. Even C-Span is here. We had to clear the tumbleweeds out of the parking lot to make room for the satellite trucks and rent additional office space to accommodate everyone.
I heard the reporter from Google explaining to the viewers watching on-line the theory behind our device:
“The center of an atom, the nucleus, is made of protons and neutrons. The number of protons determine what element the atom is: one for hydrogen, two for helium, three for lithium and upwards through the Periodic Table. The number of neutrons tell you what isotope of that element you have. For normal hydrogen, the nuclei have no neutrons. Heavy hydrogen has either one neutron for deuterium or two neutrons for tritium.
In fission nuclear power plants, like the Columbia Generating station a few miles from here, nuclei of uranium-235, with 92 protons and 143 neutrons, is split into smaller particles, releasing energy. Fusion is the process of combing light nuclei, like hydrogen, to form heavier nuclei, like helium, which releases enormous amounts of energy. The challenge is to bring together two charged particles, like pushing together two north poles on magnets. This is accomplished by creating a plasma with a very high temperature and density. In the sun the enormous gravity of our star squeezes the hot plasma until the density is sufficient for the hydrogen to fuse into helium. In a hydrogen bomb, this is accomplished by surrounding the hydrogen fuel with a fission bomb, which squeezes the hydrogen.
Second Sun’s plan is to inject heavy hydrogen into a tube. An electric current heats the hydrogen gas like a neon sign. A magnetic field contains the plasma. Then a radio wave will cause the plasma to vibrate like air inside an organ pipe. Some parts of the wave will have high energy and others will have high density. Then a second radio wave will push the two areas together, creating a small volume where the densities and energies are sufficient for the hydrogen nuclei to collide and fuse into helium. In the process neutrons will flow out, taking energy with them. The glass tube is surrounded by a pressurized water bath, which captures the neutrons and the energy they are carrying, heating the water. The hot water is used to boil water and run a steam turbine.
One of the advantages of fusion over fission is that none of the bi-products are radioactive and that if anything goes wrong, the reaction will just stop. Deuterium can be extracted from seawater, while lithium can be transformed into tritium by the neutrons emitted by the power plant.”
I like to listen to the reporters and make sure they get it right. The reporters have learned that if they make even the subtlest of errors, we’ll set them right.
There’s not much else to do other than listen to the reporters repeat the same spiel while we wait for the President to throw the switch. She’s not even throwing the switch for the first time: last night, with no press or dignitaries watching, we fired it up just to be sure. Her people insisted on that: the President didn’t want to press the pretend button and have nothing happen, or worse, have it explode.
After 75 years of hope, sweat and money, it only took three years to go from an interesting idea to a working prototype and 4 years and unlimited resources to go from that prototype to a 100-megawatt plant. The team is anxious to show the world what we’ve done, but another 20 minutes isn’t going to make much difference.
Ever since the South Greenland ice sheet collapsed into the North Atlantic in 2023, dealing with the climate catastrophe, as everyone now calls it, has been an all-hands-on-deck fight. Most of the climate deniers disappeared, just like those who opposed the US entering WWII vanished after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In a single year, the sea level rose by twelve cm, forty times the rate of the previous year. Everyone calls it “The Awakening”. Last year the rate of sea level increase was “only” three cm, a ten-fold increase from five years ago and thirty-fold increase from a century ago. Greenland is covered in an ice sheet about 2,000 km long, 1,000 km wide and up to three km deep: in total almost three million cubic kilometers of ice. If all this ice flows into the Atlantic, sea levels will rise by overs even meters, enough to inundate most coastal cities. All the ice doesn’t need to melt: once the glaciers flow into the sea and become icebergs, the sea level increases whether the ice melts or not. New Orleans was a challenge before, but now it’s abandoned by all but those that would rather die than leave. The Army Corps has moved on to DC, Miami, New York and Boston.
So, we’re building the Greenland Ice Dam: the world’s largest ice maker. A thousand miles of pipes carrying ice-cold refrigerant across the glaciers, refreezing the melting ice, rather than letting it lubricate the glaciers and speeding the flow of the glacier to the sea. The heat will be pumped into the deep ocean, hopefully not creating other problems. This won’t solve the problem, just buy us time, which is what we need. This will take an enormous amount of energy. So far, that’s come from an undersea line from Iceland, where vast amounts of hydro and geothermal energy are available. That’s been fine for construction and some early trials, but not the full system. The plan is that Second Sun will provide the energy to power the ice dams. A second fusion unit is ready to ship there tomorrow – once the President makes her dam speech.
Politicians! For decades we techies begged and pleaded for action. Half of the politicians said, “I’m not qualified to comment”, but then didn’t listen to those that were. The other half would say how important reducing carbon emissions is, but then do little.
Well, the collapse of the ice sheet changed that, but I suspect too little, too late. A year after The Awakening, the politicians signed the Tuvalu treaty, named after a country that no longer exists. All coal plants to be shuttered by 2030; gasoline to be gone by 2035, replaced with bio-fuels and electric cars; introduction of a worldwide carbon tax; research on ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and oceans; and some money to help poor countries adapt, but not much.
Solar, wind, geothermal and storage can meet most of our needs, but there’s no question that fusion will help. Our reactor can go into an existing coal or natural gas plant and keep most everything unchanged. A fusion-powered plant that extracts deuterium from seawater is already under construction. There’s enough heavy hydrogen in our oceans to meet our current power needs for ten times longer than the universe has been around.
But there’s more than just powering the ice dams and replacing coal plants. There are some people around that seem like government types that we’re been told to give complete access. I’m not sure why the extra access, because the Tuvalu treaty requires us to license our technology. For all I know, they’ve already set up an alternative supply chain and are about to push their own button. The more, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. If this works, Second Sun will certainly make me rich enough to retire some place cool and damp.
Finally, her comes the President:
“A source of energy first envisioned a century ago, one that powers our sun and every star we see; one that has been pursued for three-quarters of a century, becomes real today. In our existential battle to undo the harm we’ve done to our home, we have a powerful new ally: a source of power that is clean, safe, and without end. A new age, to stand along with the stone, the bronze, the industrial, begins today. With the pressing of this button, I have the honor of opening the fusion age.”
With that, she throws the switch and the plasma is ignited; the standing wave generated; the nuclei collide and become helium and emit energy; neutrons carry the energy and heat the water around the reactor; the heat boils water; the steam drives a turbine and generates electricity. Whether it’s enough, only time will tell.
September 13th, 2027: Pantex, Amarillo, Texas
“Let’s go through the checklist one more time.” As chief physicist overseeing the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, I was hired for my pessimistic nature. In this job it’s a plus to think about every way things could possibly go wrong and then how to mitigate that risk. This is the first time in my 24 years here that I have reason to be optimistic: we’ve figured out a way to burn plutonium, we hope.
“Yes sir, Dr. Alvarez”
“Jeez, Dallas, you’re not on a Navy sub anymore. You’re a civilian now and my name is Tony. Just run the dam checklist”
Dallas is a good tech and his tours on a nuclear sub don’t hurt, but he should have stayed in the Navy. He likes everything much more structured than in the real world. Even Pantex is too causal for him.
Dallas quickly went through the checklist: “Deuterium and Tritium fuel density and temperature are nominal in the tube. Magnetic field containment is nominal. Current through tube is nominal. Neutron levels are nominal.” The results hadn’t changed since the last time we went through the checklist.
“Hey Boss, you’re on the TV again”, yelled out Gutiérrez, as if I liked seeing myself on CNN, again.
“I’m with Dr. Anthony Alvarez, chief scientist at Pantex, the facility that is responsible for safeguarding our nations plutonium stockpile. Thanks for joining us”
“It’s my pleasure Megan”
“Can you tell us a bit about the plutonium furnace you’ve built?”
“Sure. Pantex is overseeing about 40 tons of the most dangerous element on Earth, plutonium. If you breathe one five-thousandths of a grams of it, you’ll die of cancer. Of course, the most obvious way to kill lots of people is to make a bomb out of it. I’ve got enough plutonium for over 10,000 bombs. If we just leave it here for a thousand years, it will be just as dangerous as it is today. Nobody wants this plutonium: we don’t need more bombs and it’s too dangerous to use as fuel.
We’ve been looking for ways to destroy the plutonium for years. With weapons-grade uranium 235 it’s easy: mix it with uranium 238 and it’s no longer suitable for a bomb. Use that mixture as fuel in a standard nuclear fission reactor and it’s even further from bomb grade. You can use plutonium as a fuel in a reactor and you’ll burn maybe 20% of it. What you’re left with is a mess of radioactive waste that you can reprocess and extract weapons-grade plutonium. It’s not easy, but it’s much easier than making plutonium from scratch. That’s why we don’t reprocess nuclear waste in the US. It’s creates too much stuff that’s too easy to make into a bomb.
The problem in destroying plutonium is that you can’t use chemistry, you have to use alchemy. I don’t mean magically turning lead into gold. You bathe the plutonium in a sea of neutrons, and plutonium nuclei will capture a neutron and decay, emitting energy, more neutrons, and some daughter nuclei that can’t be made into weapons. If most of those nuclei strike other plutonium nuclei, you get a chain reaction and a huge release of energy or what we in the business call a bomb. If they don’t, that reaction stops and you don’t get an explosion. The problem is, it’s not easy to make neutrons. It takes nuclear reactions, like the inside of a nuclear power plant. So we use a standing-wave fusion plant to generate neutrons, which we then use to burn plutonium.”
“So at its core, your plutonium furnace is just like the fusion power plants that are replacing coal and natural gas plants across the country.”
“Pretty close. I worked with some friends at Sandia National Lab and the Department of Energy to get early access to the technology. We put together a team out of Sandia to increase the tritium fraction, which increases the neutron production. Our design is built like a Russian matryoshka doll: the first shell is the fusion generator; the next shell is some water to tune the energy of the neutrons to maximize capture by the plutonium; third shell is a thin shell of plutonium weighing about 1 kg; then a thick shell of water and other material to capture the neutrons and convert their kinetic energy to heat; the outside is a steel containment vessel. When it’s all assembled, the fusion generator is turned on. While it’s running, the plutonium is converted to safer daughter products and energy. Most of the neutrons from the plutonium are captured by the water, preventing a chain reaction. After about a week 99% of the plutonium is gone. We open up the system and replace the plutonium shell, which takes about a day. The old shell is now treated as standard radioactive waste; it’s still dirty, but it won’t explode or be useful to make a bomb. Robots handle the whole thing, so no one needs to be exposed to radiation. We have neutron detectors between each shell, which is the easiest way to monitor how the system is working.”
“And what about the water pipeline from Houston? I’m told it’s the world’s largest water pipe and the third largest desalinization plant.”
“This process creates an enormous amount of energy. When we’re fully up and running later this year we’ll generate as much energy as six large power plants. If we don’t give it somewhere to go, everything would melt. So we turn water to steam and use that to generate electricity. We figured it was easier to move the water than the plutonium.”
“We’ve heard that there is no way for a standard fusion generator to explode, because it doesn’t have the right of material. But yours does have bomb-grade plutonium. How do we know that the neutrons won’t accidentally create a bomb?”
“That’s a good question. For making a bomb it’s not just about having the right material, which we do have, but also having enough of it and having it in the right shape. The amount of plutonium in the shell is less than the critical mass, so it can’t explode. Also, to get a bomb the plutonium needs to be tightly packed. Inside the furnace the plutonium is in a shell, which lets the neutrons escape. Finally, we’re keeping a close eye on everything and if anything is out of spec by even the smallest amount, we can turn off the fusion generator in the core, and everything downstream stops.”
“So there’s no chance of one of these exploding?”
“The most experienced minds have run every possible scenario trying to get one of these to detonate, but it’s just not possible. They’re closer to a bomb in the form we’ve been safely storing them for decades…”
“It’s just a slow news day, and we should be making news, not watching it. Turn the damn TV off and let’s see what this baby can do. Start the radio waves”. We all stared at the screens monitoring the neutron levels. After a few seconds the neutron levels increased outside the first shell; the fusion reactions had begun. Quickly the neutron levels increase outside all but the outer two levels, just as they should. Based on the neutron counts, we can tell that the plutonium is burning, ignited by the neutrons from the fusion generator. Cheers erupt across the room. There’s no press or dignitaries in the room, just some suits from DC, but there is a video feed.
In a month, we’ll have five of these devices running. In six months, we’ll have twenty-five. That should let us burn through all the plutonium currently stored here. We’ll also supply enough electricity to shut down every fossil-fuel plant in Texas, plus power the desalinization plant for our water and Pantex. Even once the plutonium is gone, we can just run the facility like a normal fusion-powered plant. I’m guessing that won’t be a problem for a long time. Once we’re done with the plutonium here, there’s a bunch stored inside of warheads that nobody really wants, but they didn’t know what to do with…until now.
August 22, 2030: Copenhagen, Denmark
The crowded conference room in Copenhagen’s most non-descript government building smelled of stale air, the local fish from a working lunch, and more than a tinge of desperation. Outside it was a hot August day and the renewable-energy powered air conditioning was working overtime to keep the room a balmy 24 degrees C. The leaders of 37 low-lying countries had parachuted in to one of the world’s lowest-lying countries to give their final blessing to the “Convention By The Peoples of Low-lying Countries on Geoengineering”.
The seas are rising at nine mm a year, compared to two mm a year a century ago. If the world continues to heat up, in about ten years the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers will begin to flow into the sea and we’ll start losing coastal cities. One way to gain time is to purposely change the atmosphere, what the scientists call geoengineering, in ways that cool the planet. If we start geoengineering next year, the models suggest we might get an extra five or ten years before we start losing major cities. We might even be able to stave off the worst.
One idea is to pump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, which will reflect sunlight. We know this works, since volcanoes do this naturally. Another is to pump seawater into the air above the oceans to create clouds that are more reflective. The best, but most difficult, is to start removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. All of these ideas have been talked about for decades. Models have estimated how well each idea will work and where to best place the equipment needed. Even some proof-of-concept experiments have been carried out, but no one has done it on a scale that would make a difference.
My parents named me Funafuti, after the capital of Tuvalu, the island nation from which we fled: a place that I barely remember from my childhood. I’ve become the leader of the Tuvalu community in Diaspora, which is about as satisfying as being student council president. Australia has been a good host and most climate refugees don’t have as nice a place to live as Darwin, but we still feel like guests in someone else’s home. It’s the only home my children know, and they live literally between the two cultures since their dad is Australian. As unofficial leader of the Organization of Low-Lying Countries, it is my job to get this agreement out the door.
“We’re going to go through this document from top to bottom and no one is leaving this room until it’s ready to present to the world.”
I think I was given this position because of my righteous anger. Some have compared me to a young Nelson Mandela, before jail had smoothed out his edges. No one has compared me to the most famous leader of a displaced people, the Dali Lama. I have never had his equanimity in the face of injustice; I don’t even aspire to it. And though people around the world listened to his message, his people have given up returning to the Tibetan plateau, and since the Himalayan glaciers have melted, it’s not even clear they would if the Chinese would allow it.
So I begin reading the draft of our agreement:
“Preamble: We, the people of the low-lying nations of planet Earth, have suffered greatly for a problem not of our making. Our countries either contributed very little to the carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere or we were among the first countries to institute measures that successfully reduced emissions. If the rest of the world had followed these measures, we would not be seeing the floods, famine, death, and displacement that now rule our lives. As the rest of the world continues to take half measures insufficient to safeguard the peoples of the low-lying countries, we have the moral, legal and ethical authority to take the actions needed to save our lives, lands, and cultures.”
I pause and look around the room. We’ve gone through this again and again, so I’m not surprised to see everyone accept the language. Some wanted to mention more details, like that Norway had instituted a carbon tax in 1991 or Bangladesh emitted 2% per capita of the CO2 that the USA did in the early part of the century. Others felt the language was overly combative. At this point, the stale air had taken the fight out of everyone and they just wanted the thing signed, read to the world and the real work to start.
After seeing no objections, I continue:
“Section I: in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate catastrophe, simply eliminating greenhouse gas emissions is insufficient. We, the countries most impacted by sea-level rise and the increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, will take what actions we see fit to reduce the negative impacts of the unilateral actions taken by others in the form of the burning of fossil fuels. These actions may include placing particles that reflect sunlight in the upper atmosphere, seeding clouds to increase their reflectivity, and fertilizing the open ocean in ways that remove carbonic acid from solution. We may use genetically modified organisms in order to accomplish our goals of cooling the atmosphere and bringing our world closer to its pre-industrial equilibrium.
Section II: An organization will be created with headquarters in Copenhagen that will provide technical support and guidance to all member nations. This support will include climate modeling to understand the impact of a proposed intervention, a catalog of best practices, and a directory of experts in appropriate fields. This organization will publish a peer-reviewed journal on climate interventions in order to disseminate best practices. This organization will be supported by voluntary contributions of member nations. The board of this organization will have one representative from each of the signatory countries. The full board is within its right to elect an executive board that can function as their proxy.”
Section III: Programs carried out by a single nation or a group of nations do not need the permission of any other organization to move forward.
“Section IV: Signatories to this agreement will support each other in the face of opposition to our efforts. We acknowledge that our efforts will have negative impacts on some, but as long as the total amount of suffering worldwide decreases, we will support the intervention. “
Again I pause and look around. How many weeks did we argue and discuss these issues? What if someone has a really bad idea? Would an informal system of checks be sufficient? According to the terms of the agreement, all of the other member countries would need to provide support of even a bad idea. If Russia bombed a facility in Bangladesh, what would we do? What could we do? Would we impose an embargo on Russia? Or declare war? What if the Canadians sank an unmanned buoy pumping saltwater into the air? Everyone agreed that we needed to stick together against Russia and Canada, since climate change was in some ways improving their situation, so they might not like what we’re doing. I could tell that everyone in the room understood the gravity of what we’re doing, and they wanted to move ahead. So I continued:
“Section V: Non-signatory countries are allowed to participate in mitigating activities with signatory countries and partner with the support organization in research and deployment activities. These countries cannot serve on either the full or executive boards of the support organization.”
I look around again. We’re all in agreement. The document was short and straightforward, but the reality would be anything but. We’ve already lost our home, but is it too late to save Copenhagen?
September 11th, 2037: Space City, New Mexico
I take my last breath of REAL air. Sure, I’ll still be breathing nitrogen, oxygen and trace amounts of most everything else. Eventually plants will make it. Or we all die. But never again will I breathe “Earth air”; never again to see an Earth sunrise or sunset or an ocean. I doubt I’ll even see a lake, but there is some hope for that.
I board the Spaceplane to take us to our home for the next six months. The Martian Exploration Program (MEP) calls it the Orbital Transfer Vehicle, but everyone else calls it The Ark. No animals, though later trips will be bringing eggs and maybe even live animals. Just humans for now, two by two. Mating pairs. Chosen based on our skills, genetic makeup, diversity yada, yada, yada. Oh yeah, political connections and money don’t hurt. We’re supposed to be the best of the best, but many of the most impressive people in the training program just disappeared. One day they’re part of the program, the next they’re gone.
It is amazing how quickly this all happened. When the northern bog fires started in 2027, we all realized how bad things were going to get. We cut CO2 emissions to near zero, but the atmospheric levels didn’t drop. If we put out the fires, then we’d get methane, which is worse, so we let them burn. But the more they burn, the warmer they get, the more the methane thaws and the more the world heats.
Then the jellyfish took over the oceans. Fish stocks collapsed. The GMO kelp and plankton have reversed the trend, so we’re not going to suffocate. The kelp is processed into something resembling chewy tofu called MariFu, which is only a slightly better name than what everyone calls it: Soylent Green. The pH levels in the ocean have stabilized and we are all hopeful that healthy oceans will return. But for now, the oceans have stopped absorbing CO2. That’s part of the reason atmospheric levels aren’t dropping.
Ever since humans finished colonizing Earth we have dreamt of moving to Mars. Venus is too hot, the Moon too small, but Mars… there’s hope there. We just have to terraform it: create an atmosphere we can breathe, or at least walk around in short sleeves. The CO2 that has caused such wreckage on Earth would be perfect for the job. Too bad we can’t just carry half of our atmospheric CO2 and methane with us.
Then someone had a brilliant idea. We were already mining asteroids for precious metals. How about water ice, a powerful greenhouse gas, for Mars? We might get some methane and ammonia ices as well, all good greenhouse gases. Plus the energy of the asteroid slamming into the Martian surface will heat the planet. A robot fleet was sent out to the asteroid belt to nudge icy planetoids onto a collision course with the Red planet. Three have already struck and two more should hit before we land. The humidity in the air has increased from near zero to that of Antarctica in the winter, the lowest found on Earth. By the time we arrive, it should be close to Katmandu in the winter. No oxygen, but warmer nights and more comfortable “space suits”. From this point on, the meteors will all strike on the unpopulated side of the planet. Some day we might want to mine the minerals from them, but for now we’re just happy to have the ice.
Our settlement is named Ylla, though some of the geekier among us call it Terminus. There’ll be 500 of us living in temporary structures while we dig a more permanent home. That’s what I’ll be working on. I think troglodytes might be a better name for us than astronauts. The Martian rock will protect us from the cold, heat and radiation. Since Mars has no magnetic field and a thinner atmosphere than Earth, the surface gets much more particle radiation from the Sun than Earth does.
There is lab equipment, shelter, food, water and fusion reactors waiting for us. Solar power isn’t great on Mars since the solar irradiance is one-quarter of Earth’s. We’re bringing enough fuel for thirty years. By then we should figure out how to get more locally.
Our underground village will have greenhouses for air and food and to treat our sewage, research labs, bedrooms, communal kitchens, and a medical clinic. It will also have a nursery. No kids for now, but once our warren is complete, we’re expected to breed.
I’m not sure how I feel about raising kids in a cave, but I know I don’t want to do it here. Over the last ten years people have been moving to higher ground. Refuges are everywhere. Some places are pretty horrible, like the mountains between Bangladesh and India or Egypt. Since the US has large amounts of land above sea level, we’re doing OK, but the maps look funny with Florida missing.
The food system is highly stressed. The North American breadbasket has moved north, the Sahara desert has expanded south. Scotland is an up and coming wine region, though the melt from Greenland is weakening the Gulf Stream and that is likely to reverse the warming trend in Europe.
Once our village is complete, we start working on the home for the next wave. The plan is 500 more colonists every year, until…who knows. An interesting thing we’re bringing is a constitution. For the first five years we’ll be run like a forward operating military base with command being MEP headquarters in Lima. For the following five years we transition to self-rule and a Parliamentary system with a preferential voting system. It’s assumed that at some point we’ll have to be totally self-sufficient.
A critical mission is figuring out something, probably a GMO algae, that can live on Mars and make oxygen. That’s where my wife, the biologist, comes in. She was part of the team that worked on the GMO plankton. I know she’s why we’re on this ship. The hope is they can create one that can spread across the globe and form the basis of an ecosystem. Then they’ll focus on something that can eat the algae plus other plants. I’m hoping we quickly get to a grass or something a cow can eat, because I’m not wild about the idea of being a vegetarian for the rest of my life.
Damn safety briefing! You’d think after 18 months in the training program we could skip the safety briefing. Has anyone in a spaceplane every used their seat as a floatation device? We’re taking off from New Mexico and headed east. By the time we’re over a body of water bigger than a pool, we’ll be ten miles up and moving at Mach 3. Time to buckle up and head to our new home.
August 24th, 2047: ICE3 Station, Greenland
Today the ship has come to pick us up. For over two decades I’ve been here keeping the glaciers from flowing into the ocean. The press release talked about the cost and better ways to spend our resources, but we know the real reason: once the rains came, it was hopeless. At first we had to deal only with the melting ice and refreeze whatever made it to the ground. That we could do. Once a year or so, a pipe would break and need to be replaced. Once the rains came, we could only turn the water to slush, which lubricated the ice and there was nothing we could do to slow the inevitable march of the ice to the sea. Now our pipes are breaking every month. It’s just a matter of years, maybe a decade, until Greenland is ice-free. It actually doesn’t matter whether the ice melts or not. Once it’s floating, rather than resting on land, the seas rise.
It seems like it was a lifetime ago that I was in the NOAA Corps and I told one of the researchers I was interested in glaciers. She suggested I volunteer for the Greenland Ice Dam project. I was here when the power line came in from Iceland, when the drilling started, when the fusion reactor went online. I’m the only one left from those early days. I’ve spent half of the last 20 years on this rock, 10 days on, 10 days off. After growing up in Akron, who would have imagined I would spend half my adult life in Greenland and the other half in Iceland?
I’m not quite ready to retire, but I’ve been too busy to think about what’s next. Maybe I’ll make up for being away from my wife, Emelía, and stay home in Iceland and putter in the garden. I could write a book about the history of the ice dam, in the spirit of “My Life in Kenya” by Lionel Hardcastle. Sara is in college in Reykyavik and Aron is busy on his aqua farm, so it would be quiet, but not as quiet as Greenland.
When the fish stocks crashed, Iceland was one of the most impacted countries in the world. Only 1% of the country is arable, so much of the food has always come from the sea. Out of necessity modern sea farming was born in Iceland. Aron loves tending his kelp and sea grass and harvesting the fish that live there. Fishing has become like raising cattle or sheep: tend the land; harvest the animal.
Maybe the ice dams have bought us enough time. Dikes have been built and people have migrated uphill or inland. The glaciologists estimate that the ice dams bought us at least five years and maybe ten. That sounds like a good investment to me.
At least a boat came to pick us up. When the MEP closed up shop, we left the Martians on Mars. The terraforming is going well, so maybe that’s for the best. Once a week they broadcast a status report and it’s the highlight of my week. I guess I connect with them since we’re both on a barren, isolated rock. The difference is I get to go home to the lushness of Iceland every month. On Mars the algae are doing well, the asteroids continue to bring them water and there’s even a patch of grass thriving in Ylla. You can’t walk around without a rebreather, but they have hope. The population was 8,500 when the Ark stopped coming, now it’s 9,200. Those children are the real Martians; the ones who have never lived on Earth. They’ve even started building things that they can no longer count on getting from Earth. Raw materials will be the easy part: they’ve already sampled the meteorites from the terraforming effort and they’ve got enough metals, including rare-earths, to keep them busy for generations.
I can’t help but feel that the closing of MEP is part of a bigger, scarier development. The progress of civilization has been about an expanding sense of Us as opposed to Them. First it was family, then clan, village, town, city, country. The Mars Exploration Program was the ultimate realization of that: every country in the world sent people to Mars, expanding Us to including not only everyone on Earth, but also everyone on Mars. I believe that this was the pinnacle of human civilization. Since then it’s been nothing but contraction. International trade has dropped, since many ports have shut down due to the rising sea level. Travel is less common, both because of cost and fear of spreading diseases. Our focus has turned inward and it seems to become more closed every year.
The harvesting of the northern bogs for soil amendment has reduced the fires and been used to halt the desertification that was happening as rain patterns shifted and the globe heated. It’s slow going, but it has already reduced the fires enough that atmospheric CO2 levels have started to drop for the first time in about 250 years. At this rate, in thirty years we’ll be back down to 400 ppm.
Our ship is in port. All of the critical materials have been loaded on board. Most everything is being left behind. The fusion reactors have been decommissioned and we’re running just on the HVDC line from Iceland. Given my veteran status, I’ve been given the dubious honor of throwing the switch that turns everything remaining off. It’s like pulling the plug on the life-support on a loved one: it’s painful, but you know that the time has come and it’s the right thing to do. Good-bye old friend.
August 9th, 2048: Bloemfontein, South Africa
The harsh late morning sunlight streamed through the open windows of the aggressively unadorned building of the Second Wave Resettlement Program: Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality. The name sign on the front of the desk read Ms. Ditsheho Olivier. Her brightly decorated traditional outfit was a relief from the earth tones that dominated Bloemfontein. The name might mean “fountain of flowers”, but for someone who grew up in The Netherlands, it seemed dry and barren. Maybe the name was intended to be ironic.
Ms. Olivier rummaged through the actual papers that had been filed in Rotterdam. South Africans learned bureaucracy from the British in the 20th century and felt if it worked well enough to run an Empire then, it was good enough to run a country now. So paperwork was literal.
I read that most of the blacks in Bloemfontein prefer English while the whites prefer Afrikaans. Given Dutch is my mother tongue and my year as a surgical resident in Boston, either are fine. She launched her interview in English, assuming that would be acceptable, or maybe she checked the paperwork first. “Dr. Jannsen, it says that you’ve already arranged employment at the Universitas Hospital?”
“Yes, that is correct?”. One thing was universal, when a government official asked a question, you just answered the question.
“And Mr. Soeprapto?”
“I’ll be looking after our children”. No need to offer that he was trained as a historian in Indonesia and gave tours in Volendam. The kids were old enough to take care of themselves and he would like to work, but the locals were not excited about people competing for jobs in tourism or education.
For a family whose home is now underwater, we are lucky. One of the things that doesn’t change across the planet is the human body. A broken arm of a Bantu child in South Africa heals the same way as a broken arm of a construction worker in Volendam. When South Africa offered citizenship to qualifying Dutch families in The Second Wave program, doctors were on the list of desired occupations. Of course, money was the easiest way to qualify. Either way, we were happy to have an option other than relocating to slightly higher ground back home. Ever since the Islamic revolution in Indonesian, moving to Ahmad’s home is even more out of the question.
“How are you adjusting?”
She seemed honestly want an answer. After the stress of finding a new home, new schools, new friends… “For someone who grew up on the sea, being inland is a bigger adjustment than language or culture. I grew up on boats; my father was a fisherman as was his father before him. Even after I finished medical school and my father retired, we would spend the weekends fishing. The sea was our backyard, the water our friend, the smell of salt in the air as persistent as the life-giving oxygen. The air here is thin, dry, and dusty. But the ground is dry. Back home…back where I grew up… the home my grandfather built, is 10 cm under water at low tide. So, I’m adjusting, as we must”
“Did you consider settling in Cape Town or Durban?”
The pause seemed like a lifetime, like generations. Quietly I answered, “The sea is no longer my friend”
The woman with the dark skin opened up with a wide, bright smile. Her hand reached across the desk and took the light-skinned woman’s hand in her’s. “We are all adjusting, for what else can we do. Welcome to your new home”.
September 14th, 2051: Hagerstown, Maryland
Thanks goodness we’re all safe. Our home is underwater and we may never be able to return, but we’re together and safe. We were able to get one bag of luggage each onto the evacuation bus and we’ve been stuck in a shelter for two weeks, but at least it’s one that’s well above sea level. As a hydrologist, I knew how vulnerable D.C. was. I should have moved my family to high ground years ago.
Sea levels have risen ten meters since the turn of the century due to the collapse of the South Greenland Ice Sheet. The base of the Washington Monument is now at sea level. As a senior hydrologist with the Army Corps of Engineers I was involved in writing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the sea walls. Never has a project gone through the process so quickly. Entire neighborhoods were sacrificed since they were at sea level before. The Potomac now looks more like a delta than a river and we knew if we tried to keep it to its old path, we would lose the entire city. Then again, we lost the city anyway. Given that most of the residents displaced were African-American and most of the people making the decisions were of European heritage, it looked ugly. And it was. Our mission was to protect the halls of power and the historical landmarks, not homes. While we were putting together the plan, we all knew that a hurricane hitting near high tide would overwhelm the city’s defenses. We also knew that it was only a matter of time before that happened. As the frequency and intensity of storms increased, we realized that we had under-built the system. In retrospect I think that if we knew that a category 4 hurricane was going to come within thirty miles of D.C. in 2051, we might have just recommended abandoning the city. There’s no way we could have prepared for Hurricane Rodolfo. The rains came in so heavy and the sea level was at the height of the walls. We couldn’t pump the water out, for there was nowhere for it to go. For five hours the rain poured in, while the wind pushed the water over the walls, until some of them failed. Luckily the forecast was accurate and the call to evacuate came in time. We took the Metro to Shady Grove where a bus met us. We didn’t know where it was going and we didn’t really care. I don’t think the bus driver knew at first either. We’re in the gym of the North Hagerstown High School in Hagerstown, Maryland. The locals have been wonderful, making sure we all are fed and safe. My kids are even taking classes here, which is great since if they were just sitting here, they’d be as worried as I am. The classes and new kids are a great distraction.
I’ve been emailing my boss at the Army Corps. He’s in a center like this in Virginia and doesn’t know anything more than what’s in the news: Congress has moved to Philadelphia; the President is at an “undisclosed secure location”, the Supreme Court isn’t in session; the Departments are all moving to whatever field office their Secretary thinks is best. The Army Corps headquarters is moving to Atlanta, but that doesn’t mean our jobs are.
The ridiculousness of working on EIS is now embarrassingly clear. The process was fine at protecting a site, but totally ignored the damage we were doing as a society to the whole system. It was as if Al Capone were arrested for tax evasion not because that was what they could prove, but because murder was actually legal. It was clear from my first project. In 2012 I worked on the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal in Washington State with county and state officials. Our biggest disagreement was scope. The state wanted to include all environmental impacts, including coal dust coming off the trains, traffic delays, the chance of a maritime accident in the Puget Sound, and the impact of burning the coal in China or wherever the coal ended up. The Army Corps’ approach was that only the impacts near the terminal were in scope: the trains could spew coal dust and tie up traffic; burning the coal could introduce enormous amounts of CO2 and mercury into the air. The Corp that that none of those impacts were appropriate for us to question. We said those issues were better dealt with through other means. The state argued that those other means weren’t happening: if they weren’t in scope here, no one would consider them. The terminal ended up getting a federal permit, but not the state one, which killed the project.
I suspect my job at the Army Corps is over. I feel like a typewriter repair technician in 1990: I’ve realized that environmental impact statements are going to disappear. If a project passes the laugh test and it helps us manage rising sea levels and other impacts from climate change, it will get built. In D.C. we barely paid any attention to the process, but it did delay construction by a few months. If we started earlier, would we have gotten enough built to save the city? I doubt it, but maybe. It also might have been worse: maybe they would have tried to protect the entire city and keep the Potomac in its old channel, which would have failed in a big storm years ago. I’ll give the Army Corps a few more days and then we head to Chicago. My brother there has offered to put us up until we figure out what’s next for us.
March 4th, 2055: Yucca Mountain, Nevada
I love when it’s my turn to do security detail, especially when my shift falls at night. I get to go outside; see the stars and the mountains silhouetted against the moonlight, breathe the fresh mountain air. There are always three security guards up here, as befitting an abandoned federal facility; it’s just not always the same three people. Not that there’s anyone to watch us, except maybe a Chinese satellite. We’re surrounded by a hundred miles of desert in every direction. Even the nearest city, Las Vegas, is a shell of its former self. I guess everyone finally realized a city with no access to water just wasn’t a great idea, though there still is a market for “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” maybe even more than when that slogan was created before I was born.
We had volunteered for the MEP, and we knew that meant living in caves for the foreseeable future, but there’s something different about the adventure of living underground on another planet and the drag of living underground in Nevada in holes meant for nuclear waste. In retrospect, I wish I had never learned that part of the MEP mission was to hide the development of this base; recruitment and procurement were folded into the MEP. If you have a project enormous enough (say, a base on Mars), even something big (say, an underground base in Nevada) becomes a rounding error for the accountants. Bill and I were doing great in the training for Mars and they loved his engineering background. I thought my background, a PhD in political science and history, was lame. When halfway through the training we were called into an office we had never seen to talk to people we had never met, we thought we had washed out. In fact, they loved my background and the fact that we were both only children and our parents had passed on (fewer people to ask questions when we disappeared). I suspect that we were slotted for this program before we even were accepted into the MEP. We were only told that it was a critically important mission, very secret and if we went forward with it, then it was for life with no way out. So we bit and we were whisked off to a new site to continue our training.
Putting the base at Yucca Mountain was a flash of brilliance. There was already all the infrastructure here, just waiting to be used. By design, it was a place far from habitation, allowing the base to remain secret. The biggest concern was that there could be a change of heart about storing nuclear waste here as the fission reactors were mothballed, having been made obsolete by the fusion reactors. A group was funded to push for dry-cask storage regionally, the argument being that most of the risk was during transportation and that dry-cask storage was a fully developed technology and allows us to mine the nuclear waste for valuable isotopes at a later date if so desired. Everyone now has bigger fish to fry, but I do worry that some of this waste will be mishandled and end up creating an enormous mess as things fall apart.
We’ve been here for twenty years, and I’m still not entirely sure what our mission is. Are we one of those monasteries at the edge of Europe that protected the books and knowledge of classical Greece and Rome during the Middle Ages? Are we mission control? If so, what’s the mission we’re controlling and to whom are we giving orders? Are we Asimov’s First Foundation or the Second Foundation?
We’re connected to all of the major fiber connections, but they’re becoming almost worthless due to almost non-existent maintenance. What communication that remains is AM or shortwave radio. Ham radio geeks are suddenly in big demand. We monitor everything with receivers across the country to understand what’s going on. There are a few people who come and go and bring back firsthand reports, but I expect that most of us will spend the rest of our lives here. In a way, we’re even more isolated than the Martians.
I’m part of a large team that pores over all of those feeds and tries to understand what the political status of the USA is. Where is the power, who has control of what territory, where is the government weak and where is it strong?
The Greenland ice sheet only lasted four years after the ICE3 project shutdown, less time than anyone expected. With seas now ten meters higher than in 2000, every coastal city is at risk. When hurricane Rodolfo hit D.C. at high tide and overwhelmed the sea walls in 2051, the federal government nearly collapsed. The importance of states and especially the cities has been growing in that vacuum. Most of the rural areas in the southeast are in anarchy, ruled by mobs and malaria. The country has become a weak confederation of city-states. I think back forty years to the Tea Party; that this is their ideal, with everyone more self-reliant (or dead) and no fear that the government is going to take away their guns. No one is complaining about federal taxes, since they aren’t able to collect them. The federal government still has some income from leases and fees, but it’s about as close to bankrupt as could be without filling out any paperwork. And with whom could they file anyway? Grover Norquist’s dream to be able to drown the federal government in a bathtub has been realized. I just hope they have a chance to decommission all of the nuclear weapons before that actually happens.
All of this chaos out there does make me glad to be here, safe and sound, in our underground prison. Bill is busy creating an encrypted, high-efficiency, long-distance radio. I believe the signal skips off the ionosphere, or something like that. Our daughter Cecily just turned 15 and is your normal teenage girl. She’s moody and wants to rebel, but life here is so regimented that there’s very little space for that. She’s never known a life other than the base, and for that I feel constantly guilty. But when I read the reports from elsewhere, I’m sure we did the right thing. She’s smart, but artsy (I have no idea where that came from) in a world with very little beauty. I think she feels it’s her job to paint an ironic bird on everything. Doubly ironic, since she’s never seen a bird.
The reports from Mars make me very jealous for those who got to go. Life is hard there, but they now have a thin oxygen environment. Not enough to go without a rebreather for more than a minute, but it is amazing progress in just over 20 years. The population is growing and there’s talk of relaxing the one-child policy, but that probably won’t happen until the atmosphere is thick enough to breathe. Even then they’ll need solar-storm cellars, since the lack of a planetary magnetic field will always make Mars a dangerous place to live, even with a thick atmosphere.
My shift is almost over. I take as deep a breath as I can. I’ve already requested to do my next shift, in three months, with Cecily. It will be her first time above ground. She’s seen photos and movies, but her eyes have never focused on infinity. I can’t imagine what that will be like for her, but I want to be there and see the world through her eyes. She pretends to be blasé about it, but I know she can’t wait. There’s a big, scary world out there and I can’t imagine what the future has in store for her. In the meantime, I go back down into my hole to pore through radio transcripts and satellite feeds.
August 14th, 2055: Isla del Buitre
It’s nice not to have the ground moving. Just because I own a 54-meter, fusion-powered yacht and I lived on it for a year, doesn’t mean I like being on a boat. In prep school the jocks rowed crew or sailed, but that just wasn’t my thing. It cut into my drinking and partying time. Especially crew, with their 5 a.m. practices. Who does that without a court order?
I’ve always timed my exits well, whether it was a relationship that was getting too serious or an investment that had been wrung of all of its value, but my timing on leaving America a year ago will go down in history (if there’s anyone around to write it) as the most perfect of all. I saw the writing on the wall and decided to pull a John Galt. Annual inflation was 25% in 2053 and when I left in August of 2054 it had already increased to 4% in just that month. The high rate of counterfeiting guaranteed that there was no way to keep inflation in check. It was only a matter of time, probably months, until the US dollar collapsed. That’s the thing about a fiat currency; it has value only because people believe it has value. Once confidence is lost, it’s just paper. So I decided it was time to dump the investment my family had had in the US for five generations.
The tool company that my great-grandfather had founded and had been the foundation of our family’s wealth had just signed a contract to supply a critical part for the latest fusion generator design. I let everyone know that I was going to retire and, rather than hand off the company to Jerry, my only child who’s worth a bucket of warm spit, I wanted to sell. My son was upset; he had worked at every job in the company, from mailroom to VP of Development. He had an engineering degree and an MBA and led the team that won the fusion contract. He felt he was entitled to inherit the company, and he was. He’ll forgive me once he realizes that the company has become a worthless anchor.
I would have preferred to sell to some private equity firm, but they were all doing what I was, getting out of Dodge. So I sold it to the employees, who thought they were getting a good deal in light of their years of service. Suckers.
In addition to selling the company, I took out loans that were secured by assets of the company. I guess I should have disclosed that before the deal went through, but I’m now on an Island that I own and I’m not going to extradite myself. As I boarded the yacht, I liquidated my remaining US assets, so they have nothing to go after through the US courts. Even if they find me, there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. Another nice trick I pulled is that I arranged to pay my capital gains tax at the end of the year. Of course, I had no intention of doing that. All of my assets went into buying this yacht, the island, and building a compound on the island that can house 250 people indefinitely. It’s stocked with food, medicine, weapons, gold, and gems. We have solar, wind and fusion power. The water supply is more than enough and the wild boar and fresh fruit will be a nice supplement to our pantry.
In the time between when I left America and today, things have gotten much worse. Inflation grew to 8% a month after I left. Within three months the barter economy was bigger than the cash economy. Credit card companies started charging interest from the date of purchase and it’s not a fixed amount, but the rate of inflation + 2% per month. Wages are renegotiated monthly and strikes are becoming common. Why work when the purchasing power of your pay isn’t enough to get you to the office? Retirees saw their life savings become worthless. The stock market was fluctuating wildly, because no one had any idea what a company was worth. Within six months the economy collapsed. I don’t mean Great Depression, I mean collapsed. It’s not that people didn’t have enough money: there was no money. It’s not that stocks dropped in value: the stock market closed. And it’s not just the US. Across Europe, Canada, Japan, Korea and China the industrial world has ground to a halt.
Hiring staff for the island was tricky: they must be loyal. My biggest concern is that some Gilligan will realize there’s no reason to continue to take orders from Thurston Howell III. Everyone will be here with their families, so they have an impetus to keep things working and not rock the boat. All the natives were forcefully removed when I bought the island, so everyone here owes their safety to me. Hopefully that’s enough.
A month after I left, my children and their families all received a gift of an all-expenses paid trip to Venezuela. They thought it was a vacation, but when I met them there they learned that there’s no turning back. There’s nothing left for them back home. I even invited the mother of my children to join us. Her response was that she’d rather starve to death than be stuck on an island with my “trophy wife” and me. I suspect she may get that wish. All alimony payments have stopped and inflation has devalued whatever savings she might have had.
It’s time for us to start our life away from the chaos of a world falling apart. Maybe someday we’ll be able to rejoin the world. Maybe Jerry will help rebuild it when the time comes. Maybe it will be one of Jerry’s kids. I doubt I’ll ever leave this island, but there are worse places to live out your days. At the moment, it’s hard to imagine any better.
January 20th, 2065: Capitol Building (formerly Seattle City Hall), Seattle, Washington
“It’s a great honor to be sworn in as the first Prime Minster of Cascadia. This occasion has led me to consider how I and we got here. When I started in politics, I imagined leading a county, not a country. When I was elected King County Executive a life-time ago I thought I had the perfect job and would have been happy to retire from that position after serving for many years, but the high-levels of CO2 forced a change in the political climate. When the Great Awakening of 2023 happened after the Southern Greenland ice shelf collapsed, Seattle, where I lived and worked, had a moment of “I told you so.” We had created climate action plans going back to the 2000s and even followed up with some action; our electric utility boasted about emitting net zero greenhouse gases since 2005; hybrid cars sold well here, until they were replaced by electric cars; in 2023 our per capita emissions were less than half of the national average and on a downward trend even as our economy boomed.
But the “I told you so” moment was short lived. We realized that even in the Evergreen State we had a lot of work to do. I had recently been elected to the state legislature with the slogan, “No one is greener than me.” playing on my political inexperience, I had just graduated from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in Urban Planning, and desire to deal with climate change forcefully. Once the awakening happened, everyone wanted to get on the climate bandwagon. Since I had run on a green platform and the Port of Seattle was in my district, I got a seat at the table. We worked on further reductions of our GHG emissions and I got money for the Port to make the changes necessary to remain functional as the sea level rose. Our plan, unlike many other ports, assumed that the Greenland ice sheet would all flow into the sea, which seemed like the worst case at the time.
Twelve years later I successfully ran for the position of Executive for King County. My platform was to greatly increase local food production. This was something that many groups, like Seattle Tilth and Sustainable Seattle, had been working towards for decades. It was already clear that the food system was highly stressed and we needed to increase self-sufficiency. We set up programs to help local farmers get their goods into grocery stores more efficiently so they could focus on farming, not retail. Lawns were turned into gardens across the county and chicken coops were in most backyards. We even arranged to be one of the ports that received the northern peat bog when that started. There were other places that needed it more, but we were closer and had a good port. If the ships couldn’t keep up with the peat harvest, the quick turn-around made it worth stopping in Seattle rather than heading all the way to Africa. A couple of companies started growing beetles and crickets for food. As we all now understand, they are a much more efficient source of protein than chicken or pork and quite tasty once you get past the “Yuck” factor. I still keep a bowl of roasted crickets on my desk as a snack. We also worked with the MariFu Company to set up kelp farms to supply a factory here. I’m particularly proud of the effort I led with local chefs and the company to improve the flavor and texture of MariFu and create a cookbook of palatable recipes. My personal favorite was stir-fried chard and MariFu with garlic and black bean sauce.
Then the refugees started coming. At first, most of those who came had friends and family who helped them get settled. Since most refugees were coming from the southeast, especially Florida and Louisiana, they usually found a place to call home before they got here. Even still, more came than we could easily handle, so we built camps in North Bend to house those who needed a place. We just couldn’t build proper housing fast enough. The camps had food, water, basic sanitation, medical clinics and schools. As bad as it was, the residents told us it was better than “out there.” Requests for help from the federal government went nowhere. We were told that our situation was much better than elsewhere and to keep doing what we were doing.
We did two critical things at this time and hoped that would be sufficient. Our regional transit agency, Sound Transit, was expanding our rail system at a rate of about two miles a year. We tripled that. We also relaxed the zoning laws, removing any height restrictions and all parking requirements for buildings within 500 meters of a rail station. Our plan was to look more like Hong Kong, with islands of high density around rail stops and people living car free. It’s not how we envisioned Seattle when I was young, but it beat the model of Cape Town, South Africa; a beautiful city surrounded by the squalor of the Cape Flats.
When Vegas collapsed due to the lack of water, many from there headed to Seattle and Portland. Word had gotten around that we were doing relatively well and hadn’t taken our share of refugees. By then the construction boom we had unleashed started showing results and the camps didn’t get much worse, but they didn’t empty out, which was our intention. All of these years later, the camps are still open and crowded. So we ended up with the density of Hong Kong plus the squalor of the Cape Flats.
Then the Great Reset happened. The dollar collapsed, the stock market closed and the federal government did nothing. We militarized the sheriff’s department to protect our borders. To enter the county, you now needed paperwork. Refugees were sent to the camp initially for processing. If they had family or friends who were willing to sponsor them or critical skills like nursing or construction then their entry was expedited. If not, then there was a lottery to allow people in only as space was available.
When we set up the border control, I’m guessing we had seceded from the USA in some sense: refusing entry to American citizens was a revolutionary act. No one in D.C. complained and I don’t know if they even knew. Anyone caught inside the county without permission was ineligible for the lottery or accommodations in the camps. Given what life was like elsewhere, that was a pretty strong impetus to play by our rules. Literally, no one made a Federal case out of it, since the Federal Court in Seattle didn’t sit anymore.
At first refugees not allowed entry to King County headed south to Pierce County or north to Snohomish County. Very shortly both counties wanted to join us with common borders and entry requirements. We organized a common defense and refugee camp structure and easy passage and trade across the three counties. In many ways society was reminiscent of feudal Europe, with castles (Seattle, Everett, and Tacoma) guarding and supporting the surrounding rural areas.
We also started to issue our own money, which was nicknamed Seattle Script. It was basically a debit card with heavy encryption. At first it was accepted only in King County, but almost immediately it grew to be accepted across the region.
Soon after the formation of the tri-county confederation The Emissaries visited me. No one knows how they got on my schedule as “Bob and Jane Doe.” They wouldn’t say where they were from, but they looked and sounded American. Clearly bright and articulate and about 25 years old, but if they had a sense of humor they kept it to themselves. They looked sharp, though extraordinarily pale, in their matching uniforms. In the meeting they presented gifts. The first was a new flu vaccine, including directions on how to make more and the science behind it. The scientists at the University of Washington studied it and said that it was at least a decade ahead of state-of-the-art. Given that the flu had killed over a thousand people the previous year, this was very much appreciated. They also provided me with a radio and said that in time of crisis I could call on them for help. They said that what we were doing was critical, that they wanted to help and that they would be back.
As the power in Olympia and Washington D.C. declined, more counties wanted to join us. We created more arrangements and we expanded the influence of the Seattle-based government. Within a year, the capital of Washington State had moved to Seattle. The new state government was more a confederation of counties with the state supporting transportation, security and refugees. I was elected Governor by a wide margin. Refugees continued to be settled in camps until there was space for them in the urban areas. Farmers and ranchers in rural areas were supported as best we could, though there were still many raids on outlying towns.
We were pretty happy with the status quo, when we were approached by Oregon and British Columbia. Following their own paths, they had ended up in a similar place. They were more interested in ties to the local Washington than to the distant and failing one.
First conceived of in the 19th century, it took a totally collapse of the US government and a near collapse of the Canadian government in Ottawa to make the nation of Cascadia a reality. The Emissaries returned and helped negotiate a constitution for the new country. It combines the federal concept of the US constitution with the parliamentary approach familiar to Canadians. Of course, there’s no king or queen. As you can see here, we’re keeping the Pomp and Circumstance to a minimum, which is fine by me.
Tomorrow I have my first official duty as Head of State: I’m going to Vancouver for the groundbreaking of a new Deuterium/Tritium fuel extraction facility. Our last shipment from the L.A. facility took 6 months of negotiations and a freighter full of MariFu just for 18 months’ worth of fuel. The new extraction facility design is from The Emissaries. In exchange for their design and support, they get 5% of the fuel. If their projections hold out and this plant produces twice as much fuel as the L.A. plant does, that’s very cheap. We’ll be exporting fuel to the surrounding states and provinces, which should increase our wealth and influence.
The next day I’m back in Seattle for another event. I’ll be the first official passenger of the West Seattle to Ballard monorail.
We have a great challenge, to shepherd the world’s youngest country through a time of great turmoil and tribulations. May Cascadia be a beacon of hope to all in this troubled world”
June 20th, 2073: Vancouver BC, Cascadia
I can’t believe my parents aren’t here. I know there was no way they could come, but it just doesn’t seem right. A bride, even one who is 33, wants to be given away by her father. She wants her mother to see how happy she is and to be impressed about how handsome the groom is. A wedding is supposed to be the merger of two families. Ben’s family is all here, but the only person representing my side is the other Emissary, Christopher.
For someone who spent her first 15 years underground and never went more than 100 meters from her home until she was 22, I shouldn’t complain. Most of my friends from the base are still toiling away underground, hoping that someday they can rejoin humanity. I was lucky enough to be selected for the Emissary program, and even luckier to be assigned Cascadia. When it was decided that Christopher and I would stay in Vancouver while the Deuterium/Tritium facility was being built, I was quietly overjoyed. I think if they knew how happy I was, they’d have pulled me off the assignment. Arrangements were made for the two of us to share a two-bedroom apartment in North Vancouver, near the site of the facility. Back at the base I think they were hoping we’d become a couple. That might have even happened, if not for the fact that Christopher was gay. He was having a grand time in Vancouver. We both agreed that in our reports and rare trips back to Yucca Mountain, we would never say anything to dissuade them from their mistaken beliefs. We had a true affection for each other, so it was easy for our bosses to see what they wanted.
Once the fuel plant was complete, I was afraid that they would pull us out of Cascadia. By that time Ben and I were serious. He was wise enough not to ask about my past or our future and just enjoy the present. He was a scientist working on the heavy-hydrogen facility and was just my type. I didn’t know I had a type until we met, but once we had I was sure he was it. He was funny, cute and loved introducing me to the myriad of things I had never experienced, like walks in the woods, goat cheese, and sailing.
Luckily for Ben, Christopher and me, back at the base they had designed a new fusion reactor that would double the electricity output and improve the reliability of the generators. In 2070 Christopher and I returned to be trained on the new design so we could support the construction of the new manufacturing plant to build these generators.
One of the interesting things about being on the base was getting news from outside of Cascadia. For instance, as far as I know the Mars colony is all but forgotten everywhere on Earth other than the base. The Martians’ broadcasts slipped from weekly, to monthly, to annually. Not because of any problem, but because no one ever answered. We were listening, but did not respond because of fear of giving our existence and location away. The logic of that escaped me once the Emissaries became public, but I was in no position to raise a fuss.
The most recent broadcast was on December 31st, 2070.
“All is well on Mars. Population 21,436. Average atmospheric pressure is 254 millibars. Oxygen partial pressure is 12 millibars. Average temperature -5 degrees Celsius. Planetesimal harvesting system at 73% of peak capacity. We will continue to monitor this frequency for broadcasts from Earth and will broadcast an update at this time in one Terran year.”
Other news was not so rosy. At the time of the Awakening the population of the US was about 375 million. Our best estimate is the current population is no more than half that, of which a quarter are refugees from Latin America. Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, L.A. and Denver are doing ok. Anchorage was doing quite well supporting the peat bog harvest and enjoying their mild winters, which has improved agriculture there. When the peat bog harvest was complete in 2068 things took a downward turn, but Alaskans are used to a boom and bust economy. The resurgence of the KKK and the fighting between well-armed rural Klansmen and the urban population of Atlanta has destroyed that city even more completely than General Sherman. No city in the old Confederacy has escaped these conflicts. After losing several Emissaries in this region, we pulled everyone out and our only intelligence is now from drone flights.
Cascadia is without a doubt the bright spot in North America. California from Redding north, Idaho and Montana west of Bozeman have joined. Greater San Francisco is in discussions to join as well. The fuel plant is a very attractive reason to join the country. Seattle Script is accepted for trade outside of Cascadia the same way that US dollars used to be the closest we had to a global currency. Canada is doing fairly well, also enjoying the mild winters.
Both of the original North American plants extracting heavy hydrogen from seawater are still functional, but at reduced capacity. The L.A. plant is producing enough to keep the grid functional as far north as San Francisco. Power demands have increased since originally built, due to ever increasing need for desalination and air conditioning. The Boston plant is also doing OK and has been able to keep the lights on as far away as Chicago.
We have very little view into what’s happening in the rest of the world. From the little we pick up on shortwave radio and satellite imaging, Europe is doing worse than North America because of the weakened Gulf Stream. Britain and Ireland are actually colder than before, while Eastern Europe is hotter. There’s no sign of modern civilization in Africa except a few small pockets in South Africa. Western China still has a grid, but that’s about all we can tell. Intercontinental trade and travel has completely stopped.
I loved seeing my parents, but otherwise I loathed every minute at the base. I promised myself that I would never return. I didn’t say anything, but I think my parents sensed something was going on and hugged me extra tight when we said good-bye.
Christopher, Ben and I moved to Beaverton, outside of Portland, to build the fusion generator factory. Ben and I moved in together and Christopher lived on his own. When I got pregnant we decided to get married. I was against it at first, but Ben is old-fashioned. Traditionally you travel to the bride’s hometown, but I can’t imagine much of a party in the caverns of Yucca Mountain. I haven’t told my family or anyone at the base. The only person I invited is Christopher, who was my Dude of Honor. Ben still doesn’t know where I come from, and I don’t have any intention of telling him. Maybe someday the world will change enough that he can meet my parents.
September 15th, 2085: Tokyo Harbor, Japan
I’m so glad there’s a sign of life, of society, of civilization on the shores of Tokyo harbor. Forty of us sailed across the Pacific in the fusion-powered hydrofoil Kobayashi Maru and it looks like we’re going to be met by someone. It’s been about twenty years since anyone from North America visited Japan. Our crew includes linguists, anthropologists and two Japanese, one Korean and three Chinese born and raised team members. This voyage was years in the planning, training and building, but only took six days to actually reach our first destination. We’re the third of the “Voyages of Rediscovery:” the first headed north along the Canadian and Alaskan coasts to reconnect with the Russians, the second headed south to reconnect with Latin America. While those voyages have stayed close to land, this was the mission these ships were designed for. As far as we know, these are the first ocean-going ships built in decades. The team at the shipyard did an amazing job. Cruising speed of 50 knots, range unlimited. We’re stocked with communications gear, sensors, and a medical bay. Our navigation gear is old school – sextants, charts, and astronomical tables – since the GPS satellites stopped working long ago.
The voyage north met up with an outpost of Russian, Mongolian and Chinese who had settled in Siberia to harvest the peat bog. When the freighters and trains stopped coming they took advantage of the warmer weather, thawed land and copious amounts of peat to begin a farming community. The voyagers were the first outsiders they had seen in almost ten years. None of them had seen a doctor in a dozen years, so they were happy for the portable clinic we set up for the week of our visit. The voyagers were given fresh food and a farewell party that is already the stuff of legend among the Corps. The fabled Northwest Passage is wide open, with nary a polar bear or Inuit village in sight. There were some ghost towns that were set up by prospectors before the Great Reset. No money makes investment in mines a challenge. They’re now in New England taking their time along the Maine coast. The fish stocks have recovered enough for subsistence fishing to supplement farming.
The voyage south has been depressing. Hurricanes have battered the Pacific coast from San Diego to Panama, their current location. The remaining villages are small and the buildings are little more than lean-tos made out of palm fronds and bamboo that can easily be reconstructed after a storm. A team traveled inland to Managua, a city of over a million people before The Awakening, and found maybe 10,000 people living amidst the rubble in Iron Age splendor. The locks of the Panama Canal are either stuck open or closed, but in any case the canal is impassable. They’ll continue south, but don’t expect to see much until they round Cape Horn and head up the Atlantic Coast to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.
This project is a testament to how Cascadia has grown. It now reaches south to the old US-Mexico border, north to the Arctic Ocean, and east to Chicago. Texas and the southeast show no interest in joining, but I suspect New England will be part of the country before my return. The rules to joining are simple: you must be contiguous with our current border; have a functional democratic government; accept our constitution; and conduct a locally run plebiscite monitored by the Cascadian government. After that, if your citizens want in, you’re in. We have a unicameral Parliament. The size and shape of each riding is decided every ten years after a census based upon three constraints: the number of ridings equals 400 (so that Parliament doesn’t get unmanageably large); the number of people in each riding is the same; and the total perimeter of all of the ridings combined is minimized. This gives each Member of Parliament good reason to think about people in neighboring ridings, since they may be in his riding at the next election. Elections are conducted by instant runoff voting, where voters state their preferences and all votes are counted, eliminating the candidate with the fewest votes until one candidate achieves 50%. This form of election favors moderates, which is what we need to rebuild our society. States and provinces still exist and have jurisdiction over local issues, but are totally ignored at the national level. We are all Cascadians.
Rather than taxes, the federal government has a monopoly on certain industries, mainly the manufacture, sales and distribution of heavy-hydrogen fuel and generators. This provides an easy source of income without the hassle of taxes. They’ve done a good job supplying what’s needed to this point with no evidence of corruption, so no one is complaining. In general, corruption and crime are rare, in part because every financial transaction is recorded. There are privacy concerns, but no one can access the information without a subpoena. We all remember what it was like when we had no money at all, so this doesn’t seem unreasonable.
A major effort has been to rebuild schools, from preschool to universities. The University of Washington is one of the few that survived the Great Reset. Depending on where you lived and when you were born, you might have never gone to school. Finding qualified teachers is a challenge, but a critical one if we’re going to rebuild civilization.
In addition to reconnecting with the rest of the world, we’ve reconnected with the Mars colony. The Emissaries let us know what frequency the Martians were monitoring, so we gave them a call. Boy, were they glad to hear from us! They could tell based on telescopic observations that there were still cities and electric lights, but they couldn’t tell much more than that. Their population has continued to grow, along with the oxygen levels. They actually need nitrogen more than water or oxygen now, so the planetesimal harvesting system is focused on gathering ammonia ice. It was always among the desired molecules, as it’s also a greenhouse gas, it’s just that water was preferred. They’ve also established contact with The Ark. The on-board systems have continued to maintain the transfer orbit between Earth and Mars and all systems continue to be operational. It’s possible for someone to meet it as it flies by Earth or Mars and catch a ride. They do have a wish list from Earth, including seeds and some new fusion generators. As the colony is growing, they are having trouble meeting the demands for power. They have built a few generators as well as a fuel extraction facility, but they can’t keep up with demand. Until we build a spaceship to get into orbit, it’s all academic. The Emissaries have let us know that they do have the designs from before and are happy to share them if we decide to try and return to Mars.
Time to board the skiff and see how things have been in Japan.
November 11th, 2095: Approaching Earth
We’re on our way to board the Spaceplane to take us from The Ark to Earth’s surface. I just hope it can make it through Earth’s atmosphere. It did fine making it from the Martian surface to The Ark, but our atmosphere is thinner and we were moving a lot slower on the way up from Mars than we will be on the way down to Earth. This plane spent 25 mears in a hangar, but at least that protected her from the wind-blown sand for which Mars is so famous.
In my nineteen mears (a Martian year) this is by far the most exciting thing to happen to me: Mars is actually quite boring. That’s why I volunteered for this mission, to break up the monotony of living on Mars.
I was born on the 5th day of Goddard in the mear 7, one of the first true Martians. The new calendar had just been adopted a few mears earlier. They realized right away that a new calendar would be needed, but our government has a fairly direct democracy and anyone who wanted to be on the “Sub-Committee for Time” could be. It took three mears to create the calendar. A sol (a Martian day) is made up of 1000 millidays or millies, each of which is about 90 earth seconds. A mear is about 669 days and is made up of 18 months of 37 or 38 days, with an occasional leap day in the month of Earhart. Rather than naming our months after Roman gods or dictators, our names come from real people who helped bring people to Mars: Verne; Schiaparelli; VonBraun; Bradbury, Gagarin; Armstrong; Asimov; Rutan… The basics of the calendar were agreed to in about two months, but they spent mears arguing over the names of the months.
I’m a doctor and that’s part of the reason I was accepted on this mission. That, and I’m single, which is fairly rare on Mars. There’s a lot of pressure to be fruitful and multiply. My mom would say to me “Do you want humanity to die out?” as if my lack of maternal instinct would single-handedly doom the human race.
After 25 mears of separation, this is our voyage of reconnection. The problem is, we’ve been so isolated from Earth, it’s not clear we can survive there: the germs; heavy atmosphere and gravity; the chaos. There are only about 40,000 of us on Mars; Earth’s population has shrunk since the MEP program closed, but two billion people still seems like a lot to us.
On Mars I just deal with the scrapes, broken bones, cancer, but no infectious diseases. When we told the Earthlings that we wanted to come for a visit, there was a lot of concern that we would bring some space virus with us, but the other way around is so much more likely. During quarantine we’ll be getting every vaccine known to Earth, so hopefully our immune systems will do better with what is found floating around today than the Amerindians managed with small pox. Our blood and tissues will be scanned, poked and prodded until everyone’s convinced we can’t get them sick and we won’t keel over. Eventually we’ll be let out and get to travel the Earth. If we don’t get sick, most hope to catch the next passage of The Ark in a year. I, on the other hand, hope to stay.
We’re good guests, we do come bringing a nice gift for our hosts: 500 pounds of Neodymium, which is used to make the magnets used in fusion generators. It was mined from the remains of some of the planetesimals that have been striking Mars since before I was born. Our hope is to develop trade between the planets. We can use seeds, fusion generators, and other manufactured goods. Some of the few remaining Earthborn are asking for grape and hops seeds and yeast, plus as many bottles of wine and whiskey as we can fit in the Spaceplane on our return. By the time I was born all that we had brought with us was gone and we didn’t have the right kind of yeast to make more.
Part of the reason to come now is that Earth finally seems to have recovered from The Great Reset. We’re landing on a dry lakebed in California, part of Cascadia, which now is larger than the former United States of America. It includes all of Canada, except Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces and all of the USA other than Texas, Hawaii and most of the Southeast, which is now “The Second Confederacy”. We’re told “The Second Confederacy” is a basket case. From space we see no signs of civilization.
There are similar governments to Cascadia’s covering most of Earth: one based in Bahía Blanca, Argentina for South America; Blantyre, Malawi in Africa; Oslo, Norway in Europe, and Chang Mai, Thailand in Asia. They claim to all have grown the same way: peacefully. From space, who can tell? When we talk on the radio to the different countries, they’re all very polite about their rivalries, but I guess that’s in part because it’s an open line. Everyone has agreed that we can travel freely once quarantine is lifted, so hopefully I’ll get to see firsthand.
Our arrival seems to herald a new age, the Anthropocene, the age of man. Humans have left a mark that will survive in the geological record: mass extinctions; changes in sea level and chemistry; fires and floods. The Earth is healing, but its destiny is forever changed. Scientifically, the Anthropocene began centuries ago, but I feel in my bones that the true age of humankind begins now. We were but children playing with toy dinosaurs. We’ve survived a very troubled adolescence. Hopefully our “college years” will be filled with learning and exploration. There’s still so much to do, and hopefully there always will be. As a race, we don’t deal well with boredom.