The Hand of God
by Omar E. Vega
Deep inside their conscience all men have something weird. Some basic impulses that impels people to achieve goals, to look forward, fighting against all odds, without hesitation at all, not resting until success. Most people in this world, in one way or another, share that small amount of madness that makes life livable, that gives us a meaning to live, and the strength to endure all tests. Every one of us maintain our own final motivations in secret, being, as they are, so private that we do not share them in public, not even with our closest friends. But the goal that motivated Bill Lettich was so strange that he could not confess it at all, under any circumstances; and that attitude keep him outside a mental asylum.
Bill is recognized by the Universal Encyclopedia as one of the most important innovators the world as ever seen. Born in 2230 on a Patagonian ranch, Lettich was a Chilean of German descent and very proud of his roots. From his youth he spoke three languages: Spanish, English and German, in all of which he expressed himself precisely and clearly.
But his talents were not limited to languages, as shown by his early works in music, mechanics and biology. He started to read at the age of four, and by age 15 he was already in college. At 17 he received a scholarship to study biology at MIT, and since then he never went back to his native Patagonia.
From then on, all its working years were expended in achieving his goal: to became the architect of God in this earth. Because what really motivated Bill was to be an agent to fulfill God’s will. He believed he was, literally, the architect of God; the hand of God that would make a reality everything the Father has planned for us since the beginning of time. But nobody knew it. Not until the reading of his will in late 23rd century did people understand his motivations.
Bill was insane; no doubt about it. But without him Mars would have continued to be a desert, and people would have remained forever confined to Mother Earth. He fulfilled the last prophecy of bible, creating a new kingdom in heavens: the New Jerusalem.
But for most of his life, Bill had to fight against envy and mediocrity. He was blond with blue eyes and extremely white, to the point that people could see as blood flowed in his veins. He was short and quite fat, with a problem in breathing and a very serious coordination handicap. Besides, he had a high-pitched voice that made him the butt of the bad jokes of envious people. Perhaps that was the main reason he isolated himself from all people that surrounded him and lived his life alone without any social contact at all. He was married and had a family, but no one knew it until his death.
Bill was working at General Genetics as a regular researcher when he got the idea. He was fascinated with the Genesis history in the bible and with the natural history of Earth, and that gave him the idea of creating a new kind of plant. For centuries men have selected breeding plants to improve their qualities. With genetic engineering, the process accelerated to the point that most of the plants used today in agriculture and as decoration are made with this technique.
But Bill did not want to play with random mixtures of genes, playing dice and looking for a new combination. He wanted more. He thought of designing plants from scratch. He wished to be a life designer, developing new plants from their simple parts in the same way an engineer creates a machine, a bridge or a flying car. He wanted to be the creator of life; a great architect of life forms. That was how he expected to be the hand of God.
And following his goal in life he performed twenty years of mediocre work at General Genetics while quietly, in secret, he developed the technical foundations for creating synthetic life. He understood quite early the potential of designing everything by himself. He would not copy nature, but would calculate and design everything needed to create artificial forms of life.
“Hi, Bill, how’s it going? asked Walt Wong to an absent-minded Lettich.
“Pretty well, Bill. The variety of quinoa C-325 has proved to be very resistant, and we are making the final certification tests to assure its quality. If all goes well, we will start to grow it in India next year. That is what we hope, anyway.”
“And what about your hobby?”
“Not so well,” said Bill, turning and looking straight to Walt’s eyes. “As a matter of fact I do not know what to do with it. On Earth, plants are so well adapted to their environments that creating an artificial plant just does not make sense. Investing time and money on it is just like inventing the wheel once again. It’s nuts.”
“It seems that God did a good job on Earth, then.”
“Actually a pretty good job, Walt.”
The conversation took and unexpected turn in the following question. It was to be registered for historians as one of the greatest ever made.
-Mars? Jesus Christ! I never though about it! -Imagine Bill. Mars lacks life. Nobody ever found a single piece of life down there. All the experiments in terraformation of Mars have failed.
“And then,” continued Walt, “if God made such a good job on Earth, why don’t you look somewhere else to apply your ideas? Have you ever though of Mars?”
“Walt, that is amazing, I never thought about creating life on Mars.”
“And imagine,” continued Walt with friendly irony. God did not put life on Mars. He was satisfied with just creating life on our planet. On Mars you are free to create your own forms of life. You can be Mars’ God, don’t you see?”
“I see,” said Bill with an abrupt change of humor, turning his back to Walt. Bill did not want his friend look at him, because he would discover the sight of a prophet.
The conversation was over right at this point, while Bill got back to concentrating on his job. But the consequences would be seen in the following months.
Besides working at General Genetics, Bill Lettich lectured to biology classes at King College. There his life was quite tough on his self-steam. His ugly body and his high-pitched voice gave students the opportunity to make fun of him, which together with his passion for vegetables and his last name, make some ingenious and unknown student call him “Professor Lettuce.” That cruel nickname stuck, and very soon everyone knew him by it. But not one was courageous enough to say it to his face, which did not stop him from hearing it coming silently form the back of the classroom.
Later, when he became famous, even an electronic tabloid make fun of him putting in big font on the front page the following title: “Professor Lettuce invents plant to colonize Mars.” Bill did not laugh at it, but asked for the newspaper. After all he thought of himself to be someone important. He was the hand of God. Wasn’t he?
Despite his not being a popular professor in King College, and having to suffer student irreverence, Bill like to teach there for a single reason: students came with fresh ideas and some of them could be put to work for free. When a student suggested plants should have a darker chlorophyll on Mars to make a better use of sunlight he took note, and when somebody else affirmed that Martian plants should use an anticoolant, he listened too. Little by little those small ideas added up.
But meanwhile he worked hard and at a surprising pace. He started from a computer-simulated mechanical model of an ideal martial plant. Its conception was amazing, the work of a genius. He invented a Martian plant that was able to survive by itself outdoors right in the fields, without the protection of the artificial greenhouses previously needed. To survive on Mars, the plant could extract carbon dioxide, which abounds in the atmosphere. Besides, it has to be capable of resisting an intense cold (between –10 and –170º C), dryness, very low atmospheric pressures (1/100 that of Earth) and high doses of ultraviolet radiation. All challenges far greater than on Earth.
Bill designed a plant that had the shape of a cactus, the texture of a lichen, and a dark, leather-like color. The plant had many technical improvements, such as redesigned chlorophyll and the anticoolants its sap carried. In addition, it was designed to store water and to isolate itself completely from the environment, protecting its interior. Its leaves were protected against ultraviolet radiation. But, perhaps the weirdest improvement was its ability to capture sunlight to produce electrolysis, liberating the oxygen and storing the hydrogen deep inside its roots. Then, when night temperature became too cold for life, the plant burned the hydrogen to produce heat, warming its internal anti-coolant sip and keeping it liquid.
But an architectural design was not enough to create the plant that Bill envisioned. To make his dream come true he had to convince people. He had to sell the idea to his company in order to transform its model into a living reality: an artificial plant to colonize Mars.
The room was full of curious colleagues attending Bill Lettich’s lecture on a theoretical Martian plant. Some ironic smiles were seen in the last rows of the conference room when Bill started to talk. But years of teaching were useful in capturing the attention of the crowd. He spoke slowly and seemed very sure of himself. The graphs and virtual models of its presentation made a good impression, but then it came time to answer questions.
“Billy,” asked a friendly rival, “how are you going to implement this... this weird thing. Have you manage to calculate how much effort are you going to expend developing it?”
“Good question, Jack. As a matter of fact,” said Bill, making some mental calculations that took a while to finish, “it will take three years, twelve full-time geneticists, a hundred supporting engineers and technicians and, I guess... a couple of billion dollars.
Everyone in the room kept silent for an endless moment. No one was sure if the right thing was to applaud or to laugh. But almost all of them were certain that Bill’s plan was unrealistic, with the exception of a man nobody new, that was sitting at the last row.
“Mr. Lettich,” smiled Mr. Robert, the company chairman, “I will be pleased to help you in your project. But I wonder what benefit will this research bring to the company? You know we can not expend money without a justification. Could you explain it us?”
Bill’s fellow workers looked at each other with terror in their eyes. Not very often did the boss himself ask a question. They all suspected that he had something in mind. He might even be prepared to fire Bill. Who could know?
“Mr. Robert,” Bill began, “as you know, today there are 15,000 people living on Mars. They consume a lot of food, and only a tiny 3% of it is grown in Martian greenhouses. The rest has to be imported from Earth, which add up to 10,000 tons yearly. At the cost of $100,000 a ton, more than one billion dollars are expended every year sending food to Mars. So, I think with just two years of operation we can pay the whole project. After that, the rest is profit, Sir.”
People looked each other in disbelief. Nobody knew what was going to happen next and no one wanted to be the first victim. So all of them remained silent, frozen to their chairs.
“Well, Mr. Lettich,” responded Mr. Robert pronouncing “Lettich” in so close to “Lettuce” that it sounded like an offense, “you did not do the math right this time. It is true that the project could pay itself, at least in theory. But the problem is, who is going to finance it? Who it is going to assume the risk of failure? What happens if your two-year project extends for two decades? What if your two- billion dollar project requires 20 billion, instead?
“But, sir,” said Lettich, “I can assure you...”
“Don’t assume anything, Lettich. Your project it is not viable. It will make us lose money at a time when our company is trying desperately to reduce expenses.”
“Now, Lettich. If you want to continue in our company just follow the goals the company has assigned you. We do not want adventurers in our company. We do not want to take more risks than necessary. Adapt or go. It is your decision. By the way, I do not want to see you expending time in your project in the company; at least in working hours. Do you get it?”
“Okay, sir. I got it,” said Bill.
That was it. The conference has finished in disaster for Bill. Not one soul stood up in his defense. The public preferred the security of a monthly payment that the risk of defending a friend in disgrace. People walked away in silence.
Deep inside his mind, Bill felt like a prophet without honor in his own country.
To be concluded...
Copyright © 1984, 2004 by Omar E. Vega