Tag Archives: near-future

Dissonance (S)

“What have you brought me?”

Ella’s grin and inability to stand still told me she was excited by her find. I would always congratulate her even when she brought me junk I couldn’t use because she needed the motivation to keep hunting. I’d tried to communicate what I wanted but it wasn’t easy because I didn’t always know until I saw it. The plastic bones from a Halloween skeleton ended up being re-buried, but the rusted lobster shell crackers found their purpose in “Daniel’s Bounty” as part of a life-sized tractor. I’d spent a lifetime creating art from discarded objects and had received accolades in my youth.

When I look at my art, I find it difficult to separate the overall idea from the function of the individual parts. I see lobsters where others see only metal. None of the children had seen a lobster and few believed me when I told them the tools were made to crack open their hard shells which turned red after boiling. Compared to these children, I’m ancient, and who cares what I know about the past anyway. It’s all useless, silly information. Even so, the kids seem hungry for more stories. I’ve become entertainment, but maybe that’s not so bad.

Ella slowly brought her arms around in front of her. Now I was fidgeting. When I saw it, my first guess was a salad spinner, just another useless device that made little sense in today’s world. Who would waste water washing lettuce? There was a scratched metal base and a lid with a handle and clamps at the edges. Ella looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to tell her what she held in her hands.

“I’m not sure yet. Let me have a look.”

Ella nodded and held out the bowl. She wanted a story for her efforts. Sometimes I made one up for her, but as she grew older, she knew when she wasn’t hearing the truth.

I worked hard to separate the lid from the bowl. If there was a basket inside, I could use it as a strainer. I looked up, and Ella’s tongue was sticking out the side of her mouth, mimicking mine as I concentrated. I closed my mouth and the lid finally squeaked off. No basket inside.

Instead, there was a carefully folded, yellowed newspaper. Maybe it was used for packing something important? I gently pulled it out of the bowl and unfolded it, but there was no hidden treasure. Ella sighed. She never spoke much, but her sighs were a language I’d learned to interpret.

“You’ve found a salad spinner, or part of one,” I said, explaining the purpose and watching her shake her head in disappointment. “The newspaper may say something interesting.” I tried to sound hopeful. “Look, it’s from 1918, almost 180 years old.” This elicited another sigh. “I’ll read it and I’ll tell you if I find something interesting, OK?” With a shrug, Ella wandered towards her friends.

After their chores were done, I’d watch the five of them playing, without words for the most part. Only Daniel spoke to me at length and had shown an interest in learning how to read real books. That meant I wouldn’t have to share the newspaper. I carefully refolded it and carried it into the shed. I spent too much time maintaining my small living space, but what else could I do at my age? The two boys had built their own shed over the hill, still within shouting distance, but the three girls were still pre-teens and would stay with me a while longer. I enjoyed their company but had to remind myself that lack of conversation gave me more time for peaceful contemplation.

I cleared off the breakfast dishes and lay the newspaper on the table. I’d found other papers, of course, but rarely a whole section. I read an ad that made me laugh. “The missing link of Darwinism has never been discovered, but we can tell you where some real good link-sausages can be found.” Usually the ads would amuse me for an hour or more, but today I was hungry for information or at least stories I could share with the kids. Neither was easy to find. Facts were considered boring, and fear sold newspapers. Eighty years later, nothing had changed in that regard except there were no more newspapers, just tweets born largely of unfocused imagination, not research.

I scanned the pages, my eyes alighting on an article that included a hazy reproduction of a drawing from a much earlier era. It described a séance, apparently in vogue in the early 1900’s, where the host of the séance practiced “table tipping”. The tipping or rotation of a small table was used as evidence of communication with the spirit world. Later it was attributed to unscrupulous behavior or, more generously, to unconscious muscular action by the spiritualist. The fascination with communicating with the dead was discussed at length in the article. I wondered what the children would think of this? All had lost their parents in the epidemic which is how I came to take on the role of grandmother. Bereavement could do strange things to the brain, but I suspected these kids would add this story to their list of reasons why they’d never want to go back to the so-called golden ages. Daniel had asked me why everyone was so crazy back then, as if we’d all been subject to a brain plague. I asked him if he thought I was still crazy. His shrug was non-committal.

As I flipped over the pages, I realized I was searching for stories to make them yearn for the past, the way I did. But who did that serve? I couldn’t tell them how to live on a devastated planet, or what to value and protect because my generation had been hopeless at that. The kids knew sharing got them further, and they rarely argued over tools or toys the way I had as a child. The concept of “mine” didn’t seem to exist for them. Funny, they were teaching me far more than I could teach them, but it was coming too late for me.

I continued turning the brittle pages, searching for insights. There was a short article on overcrowding in cities, and how it initially made people more tolerant of differences but later led to gang violence. No need to worry about overcrowding these days, I thought, but would the scenario keep playing out as it did in the wild? Prey and predator levels were rarely in balance. The next page held a gold mine. In 1900, A man named John Elfreth Watkins  predicted what the world would look like a hundred years later. He saw only improvements, and was able to predict digital photography, mobile phones, television, pre-prepared meals and hot house vegetables. Perhaps I can get the kids interested in imagining what their world would look like in a hundred years.

After dinner, I read the article to the children. Daniel asked to look at the pictures, and Ella gave me her usual frown. “What are all those things?” She placed emphasis on things since she saw them as useless.

“They came before the internet, Ella. Watkins didn’t predict the internet. But remember, it was a time when few had electricity. Can you imagine how things might change over the next century?”

“Change?” Daniel echoed. “Why do things have to change?”

“Improvements make our lives easier, more interesting.”

All the children were scowling now. Did they fear change?

“You tell us we must work in harmony with nature to survive,” Daniel said, “yet you talk about change as if it is a good thing. Change can be bad when it isn’t in harmony.”

I blushed. He’d hit on something I’d pushed from my mind. Humanity’s constant striving for novelty and our inability to contemplate limits to growth had disastrous consequences for the planet. Could these children avoid those mistakes?

“Daniel, I saw you make an irrigation system using buckets and tubing. Isn’t that change, and an improvement over watering by hand?”

“Yes, but first I thought about whether it was in harmony with nature, and it was.”

“But you, Ella, didn’t you make a net to catch more fish than you could with a rod and line? What if you take too many fish with your net?”

“Now I only fish once a week instead of every day. We all talked about eating too many fish, but we keep careful watch. If I catch fewer fish, I’ll stop fishing for a while till they come back.”

“Stop? What if people on the other side of the lake keep fishing? They will have food, and you won’t.”

“Why would they keep fishing? It’s like eating the seed potatoes.” Why indeed, I thought. I’d instilled my values, or some of them, but had I prepared these children for what they might encounter? Now it was my turn to frown. “We aren’t like you, Grandma,” Ella said quietly. “And the children across the lake think the way we do.”

“Did someone teach them?”

“We teach each other.”

I was confused. If they rarely spoke among themselves, how did they teach each other?

“We show each other and we think before we do things,” Ella said, correctly interpreting my silence. She took my hand and led me outside to the lean-to. The other children followed. Together we stared at my sculpture of useless bits and pieces that had no obvious function. I thought of pack rats and bower birds who fabricated elaborate nests of found objects in hopes of luring a mate. What was my purpose in creating this art?

“We don’t understand why you use your time this way,” Daniel said, looking down and shuffling his feet.

“It doesn’t hurt the planet,” I said, trying to justify myself. “Besides, I feel satisfied when I make a sculpture out of garbage, but I can’t tell you why.” Was creativity a bad thing for the planet, I wondered?

“Oh. We thought it was like a making a stone over a grave — something to remember the before-time,” Ella said.

“Or maybe it’s a warning not to make garbage in the first place,” Daniel said. The other children nodded in agreement.

Of course, I felt sad. Who wouldn’t if they viewed their life’s work through the eyes of her grandchildren. The tractor ended up being my last sculpture, but I still took pleasure in looking at it. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but if I tried to explain that concept to the children, they would scoff. They’d wonder why I would want to return to a time when people ate their seed potatoes. Still, the children have given me hope that we are moving in the right direction, and that, too, is change.

***

Graceland (S)

Why were the care aides whispering about him when he lay on his motorized bed not five feet away? Just because he didn’t understand what they said didn’t mean he was hard of hearing. He was only waiting for them to say something that made sense.

Jack felt relaxed enough to drool. Over-medicated, he’d heard them whisper. His dog bothered them because he wasn’t hygienic. Sure, Elvis sleeping on his bed wasn’t completely safe, but it was fine if he spent the night in soiled adult nappies.

“You wouldn’t mind if we take Elvis for a short walk, would you, Jack.”

“Try it, and you won’t like what happens,” Jack said, letting his evil smile loose. The two care aides jerked back when he displayed a new set of poorly-made false teeth that seemed too big and brilliant for his puckered mouth. He’d even scared himself when he smiled in the mirror. “Elvis stays with me.” He imagined delivering this line in a resonant bass voice, but his old man quaver didn’t cut it. That meant using the toothy grin, the weapon he saved for dire situations. Both aides narrowed their eyes and shrugged, deciding it wasn’t worth risking a bite from his choppers.

Jack patted Elvis and watched his pet’s adoring eyes turn towards him and blink several times before closing for a nap. There was an audible doggy sigh as contagious and satisfying as a yawn.

 

Someone had absconded with Elvis two nights ago, and Jack had worked himself into an uncharacteristic state of agitation.

“Where’s Elvis?” Jack shouted at the aide, his scrawny arms crossed over his pajamas. It was difficult to appear menacing in pjs, especially ones with silhouettes of Elvis dancing across his chest.

“You haven’t eaten your breakfast. It’s your favourite – poached egg.”

“Not eating until you bring me Elvis.”

“He’s in for repairs. I told you yesterday.”

“I told you yesterday that I wouldn’t eat until you brought him back.”

He could hear the two women whispering at the door. “How can he remember even owning that bloody dog?” the grumpy one said.

“His memory must be a lot better than we thought,” the pretty one said. Jack watched them leave, wondering if he was risking an injection of something nasty by acting up.

 

“Here you go, Jack. Elvis is back.” The grumpy aide tossed a plush collie on his bed.

“Hey! That’s a stuffed dog. It’s not even the same breed. What do you take me for, a senile old man?”

 

“Jack, I understand you haven’t been eating.” The doctor was pretending to care, pouting like his old Mum when he wouldn’t eat his peas.

“Your people stole my dog.”

“You have a dog? In a care facility?” Now the doctor tried to look shocked, but that didn’t hit home either.

“Don’t play games, Doc. You know Elvis came here with me two years ago.

“When you arrived, you thought Elvis was real. Do you still think so?” Jack frowned and squinted up at the doctor. Maybe they should trade places.

“I know Elvis is a robot, but he’s my robot and I want him back.”

“Do you mind if I run a couple of tests.” The doctor pulled out a little computer and started poking at it.

“Darn right I mind. No Elvis, no tests.”

 

“Here’s your dog, you old fool.” The grumpy aide dumped Elvis on the bed. “You got us all into trouble.”

“As if I care,” Jack said. He ran his hand over Elvis’s stomach, felt the comforting heat radiating from the battery pack, and checked to see if the dog’s eyes turned to look at him adoringly when he stroked him. For the first time in days, he could relax and enjoy being pampered. Lunch was a mystery but it never tasted better.

 

Then the doctor showed up with his tests and asked a bunch of meaningless questions. Can you remember three items from that picture I showed you? Can you tell me the time from this clock face? Jack shrugged and waited until the doctor said something that made sense.

“Jack, I can’t help wonder if you’re playing games with me. Yesterday you were lucid. Today you can’t answer simple questions.” Jack’s eyebrows were hitting each other. He couldn’t understand a word.

Elvis moved his head to look at Jack, blinked his eyes, closed them, and sighed. Good plan, thought Jack, and he imitated the dog’s actions and fell asleep in an instant.

 

“What do you mean, the dog’s doing it?” The doctor banged his pen up and down on his iPad as if it were a bongo drum. He was glaring at the pretty aide.

“I tell you, Jack’s a zombie when that dog’s around. Take it away and he’s almost normal.”

“That’s ludicrous.”

“Sure, but I’d bet I’m right. Try it and see what happens.”

 

Jack sensed something was up. The aides were snickering and saying things that made no sense. He heard the word Elvis, and something in his brain clicked. He started to shake. His hand wobbled on the warm battery pack, and he stared into Elvis’s glossy black eyes, looking for help. Slowly his shaking subsided and he felt a lovely calm descend. When the doctor entered with the pretty aide, Jack was asleep. They took Elvis.

 

“He’s not upset?” the doctor asked.

“I wouldn’t say that. He’s stopped eating again, but he’s not talking rationally the way he did last time. He just sits there drooling.”

“You’ve changed his routine. That’s why he’s not eating. Now I’m worried about your mental state. Really? Suggesting the dog was making him senile?”

“Sorry, but I thought Elvis was affecting his brain.” There was a long silence when Jack wanted to open his eyes and see what was happening.

“Can we give him back his dog?”

“Why not? See if he starts eating again.”

Jack heard it all, but he didn’t let his face muscles tense or his eyes react. Funny thing was, he enjoyed listening to them talk. He could tell there was a budding relationship between the doctor and the pretty aide. He wanted to know more, but if he let on he wasn’t senile, everything would change for the worse because they’d evict him from the care home. Whatever it took, he wasn’t going back to that filthy hostel to fend for himself, and no way would Elvis turn him into a drooling idiot, either. That care aide had the brains to figure it out.

 

“Everything’s back to normal,” the pretty one said. “Jack’s eating again, so the doctor was right. We must have upset his routine. Funny though, Elvis has stopped doing his companion thing – you know, wiggling, blinking and sighing. I offered to change the batteries, but when I tried to take Elvis away, Jack bared those awful dentures and growled at me.”

“If he doesn’t miss that bogus pet affection, why should we care? Let him enjoy his plushy germ-ridden toy.” The grumpy aide shrugged and left the room with Jack’s empty dinner tray.

After they had gone, Jack wondered how Elvis had managed to make him act demented. He knew it had something to do with the battery he’d removed and shoved in the diaper pail. What really bothered him was not being able to remember which one of his wretched relatives had given him the dog as a present. Jack released a big sigh which was almost as satisfying as hearing one from Elvis.

 

***

Brain Drain (S)

I don’t know how I got myself lost. I’d driven there with no problems the week before.  OK, I had a GPS telling me where to turn and admonishing me when I overshot an intersection.  When my car battery died that morning, I had to borrow my neighbour’s fifteen-year-old Prius to get to my volunteer job at the school.  “Don’t be late, Rhonda.  You must show up.” The woman who organized the volunteers was a retired teacher.  Retired or not, teachers can still make me fall in line in a hurry.

The car told me how much energy I was using, but it didn’t come with a GPS. I stopped at the side of a road I couldn’t recall, and I wondered how much energy had been saved by using GPS devices to lead us directly to our destinations. GPS was brain-saving too since we didn’t have to bother using our internal navigation systems and didn’t need to remember landmarks.  The GPS  did the remembering for us. That freed up our little gray cells, but for what?  Apparently to ask for directions.  I found the nearest driveway, pulled in, and knocked on the door of a lovely small house snuggled under an umbrella of orange-barked arbutus trees.

“Oh dear, should you be driving? With your memory problems and all?” a twenty-something said when I asked for directions.  She was covered in paint, but it was dry.  No, her outfit was tie-died, and that was the latest rage on our island.  I’d been there, done that, fifty years earlier.  It looked horrible then too.

“Memory problems?” I said.

“Yeah. You were here last week asking me the same thing.”

“Oh no. That couldn’t have been me.  I had the GPS last week.”

“Yeah, you said it wasn’t working.”

I stared at her hard. Was she imagining things or was my memory fried?  “Well, I’m sorry if that’s the case. I still need those directions.”

When I got to the school parking lot, I saw an old green Prius just like the one I was driving. A woman who looked a little like me was digging in the trunk, and I walked over.

“Hi, my name’s Rhonda, and I’m a volunteer here. By any chance, did you get lost coming to this school last week and stop to ask for directions?

“Yes, I did. My GPS wasn’t working.  How did you know?”

“I’m driving a green Prius today, and I found a small house in the woods this morning to ask for directions to this school. The young woman who answered the door almost had me convinced I’d been there last week asking the same question.  I can’t tell you how relieved I am to realize she was talking about you.”

“Well that would be scary. And we don’t look a bit alike, really, aside from the gray hair and the same car.”  She looked put out, perhaps offended by being mistaken for an older, shorter and heavier woman. “That girl should have her memory checked.”

“I’m with you on that,” I replied.

 

I’m only telling you this story because that’s how it began for me. The girl giving me directions started me wondering about memory problems in young people.  A few years later, everyone was talking about how difficult it was to deal with youth because they had such poor recall.  At first, inattention to details was blamed on the devices they all carried that acted like portable storage units and reminded them where they were and what they were supposed to be doing.  They didn’t have to remember things because it was all on some hard drive, or in cloud storage, whatever that is.  Maybe young people were no longer aware of their surroundings so they failed to recall places or conversations.  Tests were done that proved otherwise, and there were attempts at memory enhancement that met with limited success.  Most people now believe that something had happened during brain development, like damage by a virus or chemical that wasn’t around when we were growing up.

What surprised most of the older generations was that youth weren’t particularly bothered by their lapses in memory. None of their friends seemed to mind if they had to repeat things, and besides, there was always Facebook or Twitter to keep up with what was happening.   What interested me most was the widespread belief in living in the present moment.  It was like a mantra for them, and I could see how it would reassure people with questionable recall. The past and the future are illusions. Only the present is real. I heard that over and over from my grandkids, often accompanied by a disparaging look during another pointless conversation with Grandma.  The generation gap when I was a kid had nothing on this.

Some professions were devastated, particularly those working in the health sector. Fortunately computer programs had already taken over much of the diagnosis and record keeping, but nursing was a problem, and lots of mistakes were made and then covered up.  People started demanding that only older nurses be hired, and older bus drivers and airplane pilots.  Mandatory retirement disappeared without a fuss, especially when salaries were bumped up for elders.  What a joke that was, and everyone could see it would be a recipe for disaster eventually.  All the young people out of work and living with their parents or grandparents didn’t seem fussed by any of it.  It was lucky that the era of constant economic growth had come to an end so that everyone was getting used to leading simpler lives, demanding less stuff, and now, capable of doing less.  Young people spent their time tending chickens and rabbits in their parent’s backyards.

“It’s like they’re a new species,” my daughter Brenda said.

“Yes, and that reminds me of that cartoon with the apes shuffling along, evolving to man, and then devolving back again when technology comes along,” I said. “I remember, oh sorry, remember is a politically incorrect word these days isn’t it?  I read that we’ve lost more than ten percent of our brain capacity since the Stone Age. One theory is that we’ve been domesticated, and like domestic versions of wild animals, our brains have shrunk.”

“Lovely thought,” Brenda replied. “I wonder if we’ve seen the end of major technical innovations.  Some say it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we don’t move forward at break-neck speed.”

“Do you mean the Luddites among us who worry about technology outpacing our ability to apply it wisely? I suspect they’re right, although I’ve heard that not all young people have reduced recall.”

“It could be an immunity to the virus or chemical,” Brenda said, “although maybe it’s just luck that some infants avoided being exposed during a critical time in their development.”

“I guess we’ll know ahead of time who will be our next leaders.  That’s a lot of pressure for a kid to deal with,” I said.

“Yes, and I’ve heard that some kids pretend to have poor memories. That wouldn’t surprise me.  Adolescence is difficult enough without standing out as a “brain”.  She looked so sad as she said this.

I should have told you about Brenda. My daughter was brilliant, no thanks to me, and she’d made some really important breakthroughs during her career. So when she’d said that we were the last of our species, I believed her.  There was little chance of new discoveries because that required making connections, and you need a memory to make connections.

 

I wasn’t surprised when Brenda disappeared. Hundreds of people went missing that year, and they were all older and brilliant, like my Brenda.  Everyone speculated on where they’d gone.  Some were convinced there were government think tanks that were busy organizing everything for the planet, trying to keep it operating until the memory problem was solved.  I liked to believe that was true.  Others were sure that the missing geniuses had been put to work identifying the virus or chemical that caused the memory failures and working to reverse it. There were space ship theories, cloning theories, and some scary ideas that brain extracts were being prepared from the missing people that could cure all the memory problems.  But no one was able to figure out where the geniuses had gone and no miracle cures appeared.

 

The grandkids forgot my birthday this year. Their electrical devices and the power that feeds them aren’t that reliable any more, and their alarms with reminders about birthdays and such don’t always work.  At ninety-six, I still have better recall than those kids.  But I feel the Grim Reaper approaching, and I’m ready: prêt à mourir, so to speak. The last few years, I gave up trying to help young people with their memory issues.  It all seemed so pointless, especially when they’re happy enough the way they are.  You want to know the big joke?  There’s a lot to be said about living in the present moment, and it’s easy to slip into that mindset at my age.  The best thing about it is my grandkids talk to me a lot more now.

 

***

 

 

Yes, human brains are apparently shrinking. Watching a PBS series on the brain, I learned that connections between are neurons are maximum at about two years of age and then decline as we learn to focus on some abilities and discard others we don’t use. Kids under two are now using iPads, and that made me wonder where our brains are headed.  In the Age of Ignorance, the author of this essay argues that keeping the population ignorant solves a lot of problems.

Underneath (S)

Lynn struggled into the neoprene and rubber suit, tugging the material over her slim hips and torso.  She smiled in anticipation of the dive.  She could count on it to be the best part of her day.  After untying the boat and rowing a couple of hundred yards from the dock to her assigned GPS coordinates, she set her diving buoy, checked the valves on her tanks and adjusted her mask.  Leaning backwards, she flopped into the clear acidic water of Chesapeake Bay.  As the surface noise dissipated, she could feel the tension in her body subside.  How she loved these quiet times. Then she began the endlessly repetitive job of identifying potential sources of scarce metals likely to be found in communication conduits, water pipes, and city dump sites. The old brick and steel buildings below her had been submerged when the water levels rose rapidly almost fifty years ago.  Once global supplies of accessible copper, lead and zinc were depleted, underwater salvage in the under-water city became a lucrative business.

Even though the work was dangerous, Lynn would never consider giving up this job for a land-based one.  Who else could boast that they enjoyed solitude and clean air on a daily basis?  Her dive partner, Paul, said that the crush of bodies up above would suck your soul dry.   She’d enjoyed working with Paul, but declining resources meant they now had to operate alone so they could double the territory.  Today, she knew Paul would be diving a half mile north of her.

She had just tied a marker balloon to the roof of one of the buildings when a flash of light , a boom from an underwater explosion, and an instant wall of water lifted her up and flipped her over.  She righted herself in time to see a body tumbling towards her wearing Paul’s green and black dive suit and trailing a line of red blood.  She grabbed his tank and pulled him about, his eyes pale and vacant. There was a large hole in the left side of his chest where something hot had burned through and charred the edges of his dive suit along with the critical  tissues beneath.  Pushing herself off the building roof, she dumped a weight and headed up to her dingy, Paul’s lifeless body in tow.   Surfacing she realized that the location where Paul had been diving was now covered by an Atlas Salvage platform.  As she tugged his unwilling body over the gunnels of her boat, she could hear and then feel a second explosion rock the dingy.

Approaching the pier, she saw Sam, her boss, standing there with another man.  An ambulance pulled up just as she tied up her boat.

“What the hell is going on out there, Sam,” Lynn shouted. “Paul’s dead.”

“Yeah.  I can see that,” Sam said quietly, reaching down to help her up to the dock. She could smell his anger.  Lynn didn’t know the other guy, but he wore a suit and moved with authority.

“Terrible accident.  Communications broke down.” The fellow was frowning but Lynn thought he didn’t looked overly bothered by the bloody scene in front of him.

She ignored him and turned back to Sam.  “When you saw the platform, why didn’t you make a call and tell them not to blast?”

“Atlas was sold yesterday, Lynn.  I tried but I didn’t know how to get in touch with the new guys in time.” Sam turned to introduce Lynn to the other man. “This is Brent Dewdney.  He’s taken over Operations for Atlas.”

Lynn frowned at Dewdney.  “Why were you blasting?  We haven’t even finished our work or filed our surveys for this area.”

Dewdney shrugged. “We didn’t know someone was down there. Obviously.”

“They plan to do things differently,” Sam said quickly, glancing at Dewdney as if considering what he could say in front of the man that was his new boss. “They don’t hold with dive surveys.”

“Or safety procedures?”

“It’s really too bad about your friend.  It shouldn’t have happened,” Dewdney said. He pursed his lips in some effort at concentration. “Why don’t you take some time off to recover and we’ll call you when we know for certain.”

“Know what for certain?” Lynn was confused by the statement.  Paul was dead, that was certain, she thought.

“Whether we’ll need your services in future.  Like Sam said, our company does things differently.  We use remotely operated vehicles for surveys.”

Lynn glared at him. “You can’t get away with this.  Random blasting is a crime.  One of the main reasons we do the manned surveys is to avoid blasting contaminated sites.   There’s lots of radioactive materials down there and toxic waste sites that shouldn’t be disturbed.  Stuff left in hospitals for example. ”   She remembered reading what had happened as the water rose and cities were abandoned.  No one wanted toxic waste stored on land needed for agriculture.  So a lot of nasty chemicals ended up encased in plastic drums and concrete and left with the coastal cities.

“Sorry, but our risk analysts don’t see it that way.  We can get what we need for the initial surveys from ROVs without using divers.  If that had been an ROV down there instead of your friend, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”  Dewdney turned to answer a call and headed up the dock without another word.

“Look, Lynn.  There’s submerged wood recovery going on in the Great Lakes.  I can give you a strong reference.”

“Sam, even I know that subs are doing that work.”

“Yeah, but those ones are manned.  You could be an operator.”

Running a sub was something she’d dreamed about but never saw happening.  “Just where would I get the training?  I’d be last in line for a job.”

“Not necessarily.  Atlas could train you.”  He stared at her hard.

“What’s in it for them?”

“Avoid a law suit maybe?” Sam smirked.  “After all, they blasted while you were on the job, and Paul`s dead because of their error.  You could make them look real bad, might even hold up their operations for a while.”  Lynn realized that Dewdney was still talking on his phone at the foot of the pier.  “I’d work fast if I were you,” Sam advised following her gaze. “Grab that guy and make sure he realizes that you’ll talk to a lawyer if he doesn’t agree to retrain you and certify you for subs.”

Lynn took off on the run.  Dewdney saw her coming and looked less than pleased. When she explained what she wanted, he stared at her silently for a few moments, as if weighing his options. “I can’t agree to that right now.  I need to talk to headquarters.  I can let you know in a week or two.”

“No.  You’ll agree now, and I want it in writing or I’m going to a lawyer. I’m asking for training, not hush money.  You owe me that.”  By the look on Dewdney’s face, she knew he would agree.  She felt herself shaking and was amazed at her nerve.  The anger she felt at Paul’s death had driven her to this, and she had one more reason to regret losing him.

As he passed her the signed agreement, Dewdney had the nerve to leer at her. “I’m giving you a great opportunity, and I hope you appreciate it.”

Lynn almost choked in anger when she heard him.  “Paul’s death has given me this opportunity, not you or your corner-cutting company.”  It was her turn to leave without another word.

***

Bright Minds (F)

Emily heard Dan rooting around in the fridge.  She turned to look, but only his backside protruded.

“Someone threw nanoparticles in the city reservoir.  Well, to be precise, carbon nanotubes,” he said.

She thought about aphasia – when you hear but can’t understand the spoken word.  She stopped slicing the bread and stared out the kitchen window. A cloud of tiny gnats hovered over the herb box just outside their ground floor apartment.  “What are you talking about?”

“You know.  Nanoparticles.  Those teeny microscopic metal or plastic things. They’re in everything now.  Even your sunscreen.”

“That’s helpful.” Living with Dan was causing Emily’s brow furrows to grow ever deeper.  “Should I care?”

“Only if you plan on drinking the water,” he responded, handing over a jar of mustard as if it were prey after a successful hunt.  “Two graduate students did it as a prank and then told everyone. The nanoparticles they used were fluorescent, so if you swallow one and it comes out in your urine, you’ll be able to find it because it’s bright red.  Only thing is, you would need a special microscope to see it.”

“What ever happened to putting Volkswagens on top of buildings?”

“These guys are nerds, not jocks,” Dan explained.

She could see some logic in that. “So, did the kids get arrested?”

“Nah. It was a stupid prank and no harm done.”

 

When Dan came home the next day, he waved the newspaper and told Emily that a reward was being offered to anyone finding a red nanoparticle in their urine.

“How big a reward?” she asked, her eyes mere slits.

“Five thousand dollars, so I guess they don’t expect to have many winners.”

“Didn’t you say you would need a microscope to find these nano things?” she asked.

“Yeah, but some enterprising university students have offered to do the analysis for a pittance and a cut of the prize money.”

“Not the same students who spiked the reservoir, I hope.”

“That would be a good scam, wouldn’t it?  No, these kids are much brighter.” Dan replied.  Looking back, Dan and Emily wondered why they hadn’t thought to question who was supplying the prize money, and why.  Instead they had talked about the possibility of finding the right kind of fluorescent nanoparticles to add to their urine.

 

Over ten thousand people gave urine samples for testing, but only three lucky people received prizes.  A  few months after that, a neighbour was approached by a genetics testing company that offered him five hundred dollars for providing a sample of his blood and filling in a questionnaire.  He was told that his name had been picked randomly from the white pages of the phone book.   A while later, Dan read an article in the paper reporting that the same company had just identified and patented the gene responsible for a type of heart disease.  When asked how they had been able to make this discovery from only twenty blood samples, the company admitted to performing preliminary tests to identify key individuals likely to be disease carriers.

“I bet I know what they used for their preliminary tests.” Dan said.

“Our urine samples, of course,” Emily replied, feeling proud of her deduction. “And they didn’t pay five hundred dollars for those samples either.  We gave them up for free.”

“Ah, but we had a chance for a big reward.  The company had to fork over fifteen thousand dollars for prizes and a few more thousand for the critical blood samples.  But now, would you believe it, some drug company has paid the genetics company a hundred million dollars for the rights to the patent,” Dan said, poking at the business section of the newspaper.  Not a bad return on their investment.” Dan pondered a moment. “You don’t suppose those students were paid to put nanoparticles in the reservoir, do you?”

Emily stared at him, considering the implications. “And you thought those kids weren’t bright.”

***

I wrote this before ocean contamination with microplastics became such a big item in the news, but not before micro beads appeared in bodywash, cosmetics, and toothpaste and ended up polluting our water and damaging sea life. Efforts are now being made to remove them from the market.

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