Vintage Smog

by S. Foster

part 1 of 2


“Yeah, but the algae makes my entire neighborhood smell like a dishrag.”

Carrie Kolodny, curator of the Atmospheric Pollution Museum, adjusted her posture as she regarded the private detective’s unshaved jowls. “So you’d rather have the air the way it was? Now that it’s the cleanest it’s been since the Industrial Revolution?”

“Doesn’t trouble me one way or the other, ma’am.”

“That sort of attitude is exactly why a museum like this is so essential. To educate — so that no one forgets.”

“You mean, like one of those World War Two museums?”

She muffled her disgust. “Something like that.”

The detective wrote in his little notebook. “So — how many break-ins have you had?”

“Three. Well, attempted break-ins. So far, anyway. Although I must say that whoever’s doing it really is becoming a whole lot more brazen of late — they tried to break a window in the new section.”

“Tried?”

“Fensterite. Polycarbon-reinforced.”

He scribbled. “You’ve contacted the police department about this?”

“Naturally. They asked me if there were any valuables on the premises, and if I’d seen any evidence of vandalism.”

“Have you?”

“Vandalism...? No, not per se. Skateboarders sometimes use the stairways and the ramps and the railings, but usually not after dark. The police seemed about as baffled as everyone else. Not completely unhelpful, but they just told me to get back in touch with them if I had ‘any further concerns’, which is how I think they put it.”

“Any on-site security? Security guards, security dogs, security... robots, and so forth?” He numbered these against his fingers.

“One security guard, goes home at nine p.m.”

“Not much help there.” Albert R. Scoggins, P.I., craned his stiff and infrequently massaged neck to get a better view of the thin wires skirting the frame of a nearby window. “You have a security system, I see.” He recognized the logo of a well-known security firm — backwards, since it faced outwards as an evidently ineffective warning.

“I gather that we’re somewhat of a low priority. And they charge us fifty dollars every time they come out here, whether they catch anyone or not.”

“Security cameras?”

“Currently, one in the main parking lot, and one right over the front entryway. Should get some installed indoors next week, with any luck. Never seemed like much of an issue until all this started happening. And plus, construction for the new exhibit kind of broke the bank.” She pointed upward, toward the recently-completed addition. “Besides — it’s more economically sensible just to get motion sensors. Scares off most of the riff-raff.”

“Speaking of riff-raff... do you keep any drugs here?”

“Excuse me? Why do you ask?”

“Routine. Years ago, veterinarians’ offices were getting broken into — at first, nobody could figure out why. Turns out it was anesthetics. Junkies went after ‘em big-time.”

“No. Nothing like that. Just generic aspirin and maybe a can of sunburn spray.” She’d assumed the appearance of someone who desperately wanted to be called into an emergency meeting on a moment’s notice. “First aid kits.”

The cover of his spiral notebook sagged against the now-idle mechanical pencil. “What is it that you do here, exactly?”

The curator straightened herself in her green-upholstered five-wheeled swivel chair. “This is North America’s largest museum dedicated to atmospheric pollution. People come here from all over the world to see how things used to be, before the Cleanup began. I’ll give you the whole tour if you like. Some of the best stuff we’re showing right now is housed in the new addition — basically, the NOAA collection.”

“And the... incidents began at that time? When the addition was completed?”

She hadn’t made the connection — and clearly doubted at this point that there was a connection. “Now that you mention it, yes — I guess that’s about when. But we’ve had the receptacles basically forever — it’s only now that we’ve put them on display. Before that, it was all just gathering dust.”

“Receptacles? You’ve lost me.”

“Oh. Here.” She handed him a brochure. As she spoke, he began to leaf through it, noting the austere, yellow-gold wedding ring on her right hand: divorced. She continued: “The NOAA has been keeping sealed atmospheric samples since way back in the 1970s. They also acquired earlier materials from a number of sources. Although some of the samples remain in various universities and at the facilities of the NOAA itself, most of the containers were slated for destruction when global warming thankfully became a non-issue. So, the museum offered to take them off their hands.”

“NOAA?”

“There’s a list of FAQs and abbreviations on the back. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask me.”

His eyes scanned the folded paper; then, without looking up: “So this is basically a stakeout. I sit here and wait for someone to break in.”

“I suppose.”

“As long as the meter’s running, I’m yours. I’ll do whatever you want.” She tilted an eyebrow with either thinly veiled disapproval or mild amusement. He cracked a smile. “Within the guidelines of professional conduct, of course. They make us sign this legal agreement about what we’re allowed to do with the handcuffs.”

* * *

Blue-green algae: one of the most ancient life forms on Earth. When genetically tweaked and sprayed by the trillions onto Mathematica 9.0-optimized three-dimensional space-filling lattices, the algae formed the heart of efficient, mass-produced, disposable carbon sinks hypothetically capable of surpassing the atmospheric throughput of trees and other natural vegetation by 6,500%. This level of efficiency was seldom reached, however; after all, the entire atmosphere cannot simply be persuaded to queue up and proceed through a pipeline in an orderly fashion. Even so, in tandem with electrostatic filters, the BlueGreen manifolds had largely eliminated air pollution from industrialized nations.

Artificial forests of BlueGreen towers dotted the landscapes of North America, Europe, and parts of Asia, in another mathematically-prescribed arrangement, dithered like grainy JPEGs in some spots, clustered like small cities elsewhere. The primary drawback of these BlueGreens is that they smelled worse than rotting mildewy kitchen sponges, and Scoggins (the tolerably competent private detective mentioned above) had the misfortune of living next to one. It loomed above his neighborhood like a skyscraper — or, rather, an intimidating, perpetually unfinished superstructure, with modules routinely being robotically removed and replaced, day and night. Eventually, when dictated by the computer models, the BlueGreen tower would be torn down, carted off, and reassembled somewhere else.

* * *

“The unaided human eye can see more than twenty-two hundred stars at night, now that the air is so clean.”

Carrie Kolodny had startled Al Scoggins, but he regained his composure. “Yeah — nice night, huh?” They stood at the second-story railing of the museum overlooking the parking lot; beyond that lay the serenely dimmed vista of a pleasantly warm crystalline Bay Area night, with nary a hydrocarbon to be sniffed, but with a barely-detectable undertone of wet dishcloth stirred into the jasmine.

“Still nothing?”

He shook his head. “I saw headlights a moment ago, but I guess that was you.” This was the third night of his stakeout, and he’d actually fallen asleep several times on previous occasions. He had little incentive to inform her of this, especially since the place had gone completely undisturbed in spite of his lackadaisicality.

She pointed toward the impact-resistant waterproof starlight/ infrared monocular he wore on a strap. “My ex-husband had one of those. I was almost afraid to ask him what he looked at with it.”

“They come in handy in my line of work. Don’t much care for flashlights, myself — gives the bad guys something to aim for.” He snagged sleeve with forefinger, pinched his web-enabled Casio GPS-2 wristwatch to illuminate it, and announced, mordantly, “Half-past midnight.”

“I couldn’t sleep. Married to the job, I guess.” Then, a moment later, amid the distant sounds of night birds and the ever-present rumble of atmosphere-processing hardware: “So this is a stakeout.”

“Not particularly glamorous, I’m afraid. To be exact about it, this is a stakeout as private dicks know it. Whereas your cops, they always bring somebody else along. Plus radios, billy clubs, pepper spray, and so on. What’s in that Thermos?”

She unscrewed the top of the chrome cylinder. “Cocoa,” she smiled. From the railing, he retrieved an empty soda can and held it out to her with a shrug and an expression that said might as well. Time passed; they sipped.

It could have been twenty-five minutes later when he spied movement at the periphery of the lot, which was revealed immediately as a deer. It seemed to sense it was being watched: it fixed its gaze on them momentarily, and then bounded away. He handed the monocular to Carrie in time for her to see a grainy, false-color image of rear hooves slipping gracefully into foliage, which sprang back into quiescence amid a rash of pixels. She grinned: “This is just like camping!”

“Want some salmon,” he asked as he dug a plastic bag from his pocket. Although initially enthusiastic, she recoiled with nostrils flared as she smelled it.

“That’s not that electroplated salmon garbage, is it?”

“ElectroSmoked, they call it — yes, it is. Not your brand, I take it?”

“Reminds me of my husband.”

“It’s an acquired taste, I suppose.” Sounds of chewing occupied an extended pause. “Like Vegemite,” he said around the edges of a bite. An electrical fire in a salmon smoking facility had led to the development of ElectroSmoked salmon, a gastronomic fad on par with blue corn, fermented foods, and various species of sprouts. Its popularity had peaked years earlier, but sales remained respectable, as devotees described the taste as oddly addictive — which was truer than anyone realized.

Her pose indicated that she was losing interest in the conversation, so Scoggins reasoned that he had little to lose by asking: “What was so awful about your husband, exactly? I apologize for prying, but this sort of thing is pretty much bread-and-butter for me.”

She exhaled. “Where do I start? Distant... cold... always withholding affection... on top of all that, he was addicted to Virtual Realty.”

Scoggins’ stare of incomprehension registered even in the relative absence of light. “Reality, you mean?”

“No — Virtual Realty. It’s not a joke — I think it’s a trade name, like Kleenex or Muzak, but I don’t know who makes it. He was a real estate agent — when I met him, anyway. They had these virtual rigs so that prospective buyers could try out properties without actually having to go there. So he mapped the floor plan of his boyhood home into it... the one that burned down when he was six. With his two brothers inside. Initially I thought it was maybe therapeutic what he was doing, but it got obsessive eventually. He spent more and more time on it, and — this is even weirder than it sounds — he started wearing this goldenrod Century 22 blazer to bed every night.”

“I’m doing my best not to laugh.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve told the story before. I expect that.”

“Well, we’ve got one thing in common, you and me. We both hate real estate agents.”

She recoiled, as if re-exposed to the wrong sort of salmon. “Hate is too strong a word.”

“Not in my case! A realtor sweet-talked me into buying my place like five weeks before the BlueGreen went online right up the street. Now I’ve been there for years, and there’s no chance of selling it, which naturally I’d need to do if I ever tried to relocate. But I can’t, because nobody wants to live in a neighborhood that smells like total mildew 24/7, 365.”

“You’d rather live next to an ElectroStat?”

“No thank you. You mean that in a count-your-blessings kind of way?”

Kolodny shrugged. “I am bullish on the clean atmosphere concept, obviously — although I can sympathize about the odor. Still, it beats getting struck by lightning.” This was in reference to the fact that — although they did a stellar job of scrubbing tons of soot from the air — gigantic electrostatic filters, as a consequence of their design, had a tendency to attract lightning. Generally speaking, it tends to depress property values sharply when people find charred tricycle parts and Hello Kitty lunchboxes fused to sidewalks by stray gigawatts.

“Still,” he sighed,”I don’t understand why they don’t just put the algae out in the ocean — that’s where algae comes from, isn’t it?”

“The BlueGreens are genetically modified — that’s why they work so well. But there’s always reluctance to release anything like that into the wild — it’s best to keep it all where you can look after it.”

“Even in my neighborhood.”

She gave no direct response to this. “Plus, consider that the oceans have already been over-seeded with iron, which was put there supposedly to stimulate plankton growth.”

“And?”

“And, now all that iron is basically a pollutant in its own right. They miscalculated.”

He nodded gravely. “If it ain’t one thing...” She let out a yawn. He made another attempt to revive the conversation. “So — how does one become a curator? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“You’re genuinely interested?”

“I can pretend.” He respired wearily into the clear mid-May night.

“Well, in my case, I found this matchbook cover that said, ‘If you can finish this simple drawing, you can be the curator of a glamorous air pollution museum.’ And it had this picture of a frog in a t-shirt that you were supposed to complete, so I just wrote ‘BLACK SABBATH’ on it, sent it in, and suddenly here I am.”

“Really.”

“No, I’m lying. In actuality, my double-degree in Atmospheric Science and Museum Technologies made me the most qualified in a pool of thirty-three applicants — and I should say that the competition is more ferocious than you could imagine. The double degree is what got me the job, basically. That, and my willingness to relocate.”

“Let me guess — you wanted to get away from you-know-who?”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by S. Foster

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