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Standing Athwart History

by Ian Cordingley

part 1 of 2

Carol Brown sent the finished comic to her dead sister’s phone. Carol had drawn Nicole while hiking through the countries Carol was visiting before she found herself trapped in a cage surrounded by cackling lab coats. She chose a particularly comical emoticon, sticking out its mischievous tongue, to conclude the message to her sister, then sighed as she put her phone back into her pocket.

Well, work before pleasure, she reminded herself. It had been a while since she had had the chance to draw. She called up what she was supposed to be working on. Only a couple of other students were in the lab with her. Judging by the quiet grumblings and complaints that “this is hopeless,” she surmised they had Nelson Clark as a supervisor.

An excellent view of the Discovery District was to her left through tinted windows. Outside, people walked freely from their jobs, back to their homes, while Carol’s work was never done.

Nicole was to thank — or to blame — for that. Back when Carol was six and they gave a kit for her birthday, and cooed in awe as they dripped a super-weakened strain onto a strip of metal. The strip turned red and acquired the flexibility of plastic. Ever since, nanotechnology had been part of her life as inseparable as her skin.

Presently she was undertaking an assignment regarding the internal redistributing powers of Shenzhen Blue; understanding how Red and Green, its predecessor strains, used Blue’s hybrid recombining-harvester patterns, a way unique to the Chinese spectrum series, noticing the large gaps between inhibitors along the strain’s body. Molecules could be herded along at rapid pace, up to four times faster than anything in the comparable Edmonton Nanotechnological Schedule.

“Just run a sponge over me and you’ll have as much as you want,” Nicole said.

“They spread it around like paint there,” Carol confirmed.

“When I’m done my doctorate, I’ll make sure there’ll be something even worse.”

Carol laughed. “You’re going to get yourself eaten alive.”

Their mother, back from the kitchen after refreshing her drink, spending what little time she could with her daughters before they disappeared back into the world, chuckled awkwardly. The family had been out on the back deck. “Last chance to see your sister,” her mother had said.

Her mother had previously voiced concern of Nicole’s choice of destinations: Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia were acceptable, though she noticed that her return flights home were flying out of airports, while cheap, that were also within China’s contaminated regions.

“Well, things are different over there,” Nicole had said. “That’s where the field is really taking shape. I want to see it for myself.”

Shenzhen Blue was the response to the legacy of over-industrialization blighting much of China, when the country grew too greedy. Clouds of carbon dioxide were not leaving the air, heavy metals still remained in the soil, and contaminants were not vanishing from the rivers. Blue was the strain that would repair the considerable damage.

Professor Clark’s readings on early deployment of Shenzhen were little more than jeremiads about the earliest successes of nanotechnology, with the words “responsible deployment” appearing frequently. His caution could be construed as an attempt to sabotage the field from within.

Occasionally a visiting scientist from China would drop by. They would confirm that by Western standards, China had been “assertive,” though nothing in the Edmonton Schedule, they noted, could compare to Shenzhen Blue’s effectiveness.

“But it is harmless to people?” her mom asked.

“Yes, Mom,” Nicole said. Same tone that she used with her mother whenever she requested help from her daughters on some newfangled gadget.

“I saw on the news that if it gets into your eyes... ”

“In theory,” Nicole said, sighing, “if it carries on a mote of rust or something like that and gets into your eyes, or nose, whatever, well, you will have a problem.”

“Take eye drops then. Make sure it doesn’t get in your eyes.”

“Mom... ” Carol began.

“It hunts down pollution, and if not used right, it can possibly... make things worse,” Nicole said, “but it’s hard to argue with the results.”

“Shenzhen’s almost forty percent inhabitable,” Carol added. “Xi’an nearly twenty. They have trees growing in some areas.”

“I just wish they hadn’t spoiled their own cities like that. What did they think was going to happen?”

The visiting scientists from China would be interviewed by the campus student newspaper where the exact same question would be asked. Judging by their choice of words that followed, it was a prickly issue to raise.

“We’re not doing so hot ourselves,” Nicole added. “Got our own mess to clean up.”

Nicole and Carol were eight when they got to see one of the last breeding pairs of polar bears. Seen from orbit, most of the Arctic — “from the Russian side,” it was frequently emphasized — had a wretched orange smear where it wasn’t pockmarked. The Edmonton Schedule was jointly denounced as an additional rub of salt into nature’s wound, and for moving too slowly to fix humanity’s mistakes. But what else could they do?

“Mom,” Nicole said, patting her mother’s hand, a mannerism developed in adolescence to control the poor woman’s incredible maternal instincts, “we know what we’re doing.”

* * *

“I’m sorry.”

Carol looked up. It was a grad student studying under someone else in the department. His face looked like it was half melted.

“Excuse me?”

“About your sister,” he explained.

Carol looked confused. “Beg pardon?”

“I saw it on the news. You said she was in Thailand?”


He fidgeted in place. “Well, I just... hoped you’d be all right, I mean.”

“Sorry, what are you talking about?”

He blanched, muttering, “I’m sorry. Oh, God.”

The hallways had suddenly got busier. Chatter rapid and hushed came from the groups clustering around the flat screens in the hall. Normally they just showed the day’s weather or university announcements, but the crowds around them were too thick for Carol to see what was happening in detail. Someone had switched to a news channel’s live feed. All she saw was a lot of smoke.

Her supervisor, Professor David Musgrave, tapped her on the shoulder. His notoriously cheerful mood had abandoned his face. “I’m sorry.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

Musgrave inhaled deeply. “Someone, Juche remnants they’re saying, hit Bangkok. Much of the city is on fire. Mass casualties.”

Musgrave’s favourite tactic with students was always to explain the facts and let the students reach the conclusion by process of elimination. He pointed out what was incorrect.

“What, a bomb?”

“Corrupted Blue,” Musgrave said. “Looks like a corrupted nanotechnology agent.”

“Maybe she got out. Maybe her flight left early or something.”

“The airport was one of the first hit.”

Helpfully the television displayed video labeled RECORDED EARLIER: traffic surveillance footage from the areas affected. Gritty grey clouds puffed into the air, rising on the heat, apparently from modified vans or trucks driving past casually. It would not have been hard to have found industrial slag, grind it up and spray a film of chemicals over it. Within minutes, the first wave of damage had occurred where the dust had fallen.

Carol fumbled for her phone. Her mother had tried to call her three times in twelve minutes. So many of her friends had texted her that her inbox was full. Have you heard? I am so, so sorry.

Clark was stumbling past his office, shaking his head. “Too unstable, too unstable. Now look what happened,” he muttered, head low and direction aimed squarely at the elevator.

Musgrave drove Carol home, where she finally had the opportunity to get back to her Mom. It was a painful experience. She got back to her friends, cried with family, watched the news unfold. Everything seemed distant and felt unreal.

Surprisingly she managed to sleep in the next day though after she awoke, she felt paralyzed, as if her body had turned to lead. She’s gone, was the only thought in her head.

Carol only cried after going through all the texts she had received. Nicole had sent one. Flight delayed. Bugger. Remind Mom.

Juche loyalists took credit, boasting of the decapitated Kim dynasty’s revenge. The United States used tactical nukes against the few strongholds in the mountains. For days the news covered screaming Koreans, burned, skin sloughing off, staggering towards the south. Good, Carol thought. No less than they deserve.

So the next day, year zero of the time without Nicole, was spent at home. She got a few condolence calls, some sympathy emails. There was no body. Her family was assured that Nicole’s death had been painless: her brain would have gone first, then her nerves as the corrupted strain followed her nerve’s electrical impulses. Just slush now, Carol tried to think. She knew the truth was more complicated.

She walked through her apartment and flicked off every photograph frame she had of her sister. Every frame had at least one. She switched them back to factory settings: pictures of flowers or smiling children or landscapes. There’s nothing left. She sat on her bed.

Her sister’s body was wrapped in green plastic awaiting proper disposal. Disposal, not burial, destined to be immersed in a solution that hopefully would crash Shenzhen Blue’s appetite. Carol closed her eyes, counted to ten, then opened them and repeated to herself that there was nothing left. For all intents and purposes, she reminded herself, there was nothing.

She looked at Clark’s editorial on her tablet. The headline asked SHOULD WE CONTINUTE TO USE NANOTECHNOLOGY IN THE ARCTIC? The answer was yes, of course. Nothing else short of entropy could get the job done — foregone conclusion, that. Question being, how much would be needed and how fast could the strains get the job done? In the corridors of power, arrogant men thundered. Legislation was pending.

Musgrave was making appeals of his own for sanity, and even won a few times: The Edmonton Schedule is slow-acting, granted. We’re probably fifty to sixty years away, to be generous, from a full decontamination of the Arctic. However, the Edmonton Schedule is the most stable version of nanotechnology we have available. First he had to fight the delusion that all nanotechnology was now going to become corrupt and consume the world, and then fight against the creatively opinionated who proposed some solution science couldn’t support.

Carol had checked Musgrave’s books out from the library when she was very little, books with very big words and confusing science. Fifteen years ago, he had boasted about the Chinese breakthroughs: Shenzhen Blue is the best available opportunity to use nanotechnology to address decades of poor environmental planning. That it can be made within limited parameters at no great expense only adds to its merits.

Up north, where mountains of slag dotted the country and rusted ships, many mildly radioactive, littered the beaches or drifted aimlessly through the open water, nature was still recovering. The Nunavut government had suspended all further dustings until they could be reassured. They had made a big mistake letting the world have its way with their riches once. They would not get fooled again.

Carol looked up to the ceiling. After realizing that it was not going to get any more off-white, she got up and off of her bed. She placed the tablet on her nightstand. Best to go for a short walk, get exercise, make the appearance of moving on with her life. A short stroll down Dupont ought to do it.

She began to walk towards Bathurst. The day was warm and bright, so she could forsake her jacket. Now she was just an anonymous citizen. It didn’t feel like there was a giant arrow pointing down from above inviting all to gawk.

She had moved to the neighbourhood in the final year of her undergrad, around the time she had abandoned her half-hearted attempt at a web comic, Annexiled. More of a blessing than a curse: she had struggled to maintain the balance of the characters and the nanotech jargon she insisted in inserting.

A flower shop had added a cardboard sign reminding its customers that it stocked only organic flowers — nanotech-free. She bought a Coke. She finished it in half a block before finding herself trying to toss the can into an ordinary waste bin. When she was a small child, she had been very particular about putting the right trash in the right place.

Too much of human waste, to be glib, was indestructible. The sun would probably swallow the Earth before the last Styrofoam cup succumbed to decay. She slid the can into the recyclable slot where someone had wedged a rotting banana peel. With a disgusted look on her face, she nudged it off, letting it fall to the ground.

Assuming nobody touched it, you can expect decomposition in under a year. The can? A century or better part thereof. No one would die of just the two things, but multiplied tens of millionsfold...

The world had been reckless. Bad decisions could hopefully be cured with a modern easy fix. She nudged the peel under the waste bin. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe it would have been a better idea from the start.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Ian Cordingley

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