Week 1: The Ides of March
He was ready, earphones in, waiting for the call, pretending he was connected. “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones ricocheted around his skull.
His brain craved each beat of the driving tempo like a drug, anxiously anticipating the repetitive chords and feeling the hit when they arrived. Right now, Joey’s song was a perfect match for the way he felt.
Liam McCoul worked for the Global Mining Company, recently rebranded as GMC. Formally, he was the project director in their technology group; informally, he was the go-to guy for cleaning up other people’s messes. He rescued projects that had to be finished one way or the other but were either dead, dying, or otherwise headed into bad territory.
By virtue of the fact that he’d earned his PhD by 24 and had a magic touch with technology, Liam was a bit of a star in the small but powerful universe of luddites with very large piles of cash and very large problems to go with them. At GMC, they believed in him. He had a gift for finding the simple answer to the complex problem, and this talent had served him well for two decades. When he asked for money for a project, it was handed over. No hesitation.
Liam was a bit intimidated by this. The psychologists on the afternoon chat shows talked a lot about imposter syndrome, and Liam had it in spades. The start of any new recovery task was therefore fraught with danger, as it presented a fresh opportunity for his gift to fail him and thus expose him for the fraud he was deeply convinced he was.
But this recovery task was different. Liam felt his potential for exposure was at an all-time high. The venture had begun as a crazy project that he himself had launched before handing it off for someone else to finish. It involved a specialized team focusing on the mine of the future.
The idea: to extract metals with minimal environmental impact. Low-impact extraction equals low-cost extraction. Simple.
The procedural concept was also simple: Just drill a small hole into the ground, then let the nanobots loose. They would bring back chunks of pure metal for GMC to sell. No messy trucks, no explosions, no smelters, no big hole in the ground, no tailings dam, and best of all, it’s – potentially – really cheap. GMC were in love with “cheap,” so the idea was easy to sell. Money no object, just get us a result.
Liam got that a lot. Only this time, the result wasn’t what they expected.
It was much better.
Liam moved the target to space, mining asteroids. No gravity to combat, no royalties to pay, no environmental laws, and no property rights. You claim what you can reach and sometimes more. The potential was as unlimited as GMC’s desire to expand.
Once the project was on track to deliver as designed, Liam was moved to a more “valuable” project. The nanobots were well into their testing phase when Liam was called back. The tests being carried out on the moon were going in a sinister direction. The project manager on duty had been moved to “Special Projects,” i.e., the departure lounge, and the cry had gone out for the man with the Midas touch.
The rhythm of the Ramones faded mid-chorus and was replaced by the sound of a phone ringing inside his head. He adjusted his weight in the chair, had a slurp of water, and focused on the computer screens that dominated his view. They wrapped around him, cocooning him from the real world. Cletus Lockjaw, the chief engineer of the project’s space partner, had finally dialed in. When Liam tapped the green button, the screen filled with a familiar face.
“Sorry, Dawg – pulled over by the cops three times on the way into the office today,” Cletus lamented, “and every one of them had done it before.”
“You in Texas today?” asked Liam.
“Ha, no. The folks in Waco have worked out what’s going on, but in L.A., I’m just another car thief,” replied Cletus.
Cletus had doctorates from Imperial College London and MIT. His accent was a weird mashup of his poor Louisiana background, the upper classes of England, and the East Coast establishment. Liam thought Cletus looked like a pale imitation of a rapper, and that’s how everyone treated him. That he was the person closest to unifying Einstein’s theories and quantum mechanics didn’t mean anything to anyone except the elite of theoretical physics. There weren’t many of them, so he was usually stuck being the imitation rapper.
“So, what has Gene been up to?” asked Liam.
Gene was the Artificial Intelligence built to run the nanobots. Originally, Liam had named it in homage partly to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, partly to the uniqueness of the bot’s architecture; and partly because the name just seemed to fit. Senior executives didn’t like that kind of reason, so when anyone important asked, Gene stood for GEneral Nanobot Environment.
“I don’t think he’s obeying the Code at the moment,” Cletus replied.
“How so?” Liam taking another sip of water.
“Our production cap was five hundred kilos of builder bots, right?” Cletus didn’t wait for a response, because they both knew he was right. “Well, he’s blown way past that.”
“By how many?”
“About eight million tonnes.”
“Of builder bots,” Liam confirmed, despite knowing he was correct.
Liam winced. “‘Way past’ seems like an understatement. Still exponential growth?”
“Yep. Still following the growth y’all have seen.” Cletus continued, “But I think it’s worse than that. When we analyzed the log files, it looked almost as if he made them to a quota, ignored that, and just kept going. It’s like he’s obsessed with something. Haven’t seen anything like it before.”
“Hmmm. If this goes on much longer, the worst-case outcome modeling will come into play. Let’s do a quick update on that now,” Liam suggested.
Liam was coming back up to speed. Since he had been deeply immersed in the project prior to being reassigned, the details were emerging like fond memories of a treasured pet. He was struggling to work out what the previous guy had done to so massively screw up what should have been a simple project. To do that, he needed to understand what the whole situation looked like now. His approach was to dig into the details as if he were diving into a raging torrent of a river and swimming like hell.
“I’ll start.” Liam moved forward, focused again, and grabbed the cacophony of paper beside his keyboard.
“It’s a bit grim,” he warned, eyes down on the scribbled notes that reported details from the calls and emails of the past few days. The tone of the discussion was about to get serious, and the hairs stood up on the back of his arm as he looked up at his friend.
“There is no reason to believe that Gene couldn’t strip the moon back to its iron core if he put his mind to it,” he reported.
Liam saw the change on his collaborator’s face and felt the temperature drop a couple of degrees. The silence made his ears twitch, searching for a response.
“Uhuh,” grunted Cletus with an understanding nod.
Liam turned back to his notes and continued with the bad news.
“The destruction of the moon is a real possibility. The astronomers over at the university agreed with our hunch. So, what does that mean?” he asked, then proceeded to answer. “Well, we’ll get a nice set of dust-and-debris rings around the Earth, a lot like the ones we see around Saturn.”
He looked up to check the reaction on the monitor. Cletus’s mood was calm on the outside, but there was probably a lot happening internally. “Since the iron core is only about one percent of the moon’s mass, it will move out to a much higher orbit. So, no tides, like we thought.”
“No tides. Great to be proved right,” Cletus deadpanned from the monitor, sounding more dour. “Anything else?”
Liam sighed. “Yeah. There is one we missed before. You know how the moon stabilizes the tilt on the Earth’s axis? Well, once the brakes are off, the tilt could go up to 45 degrees over time.”
The image on the monitor changed. Cletus now had his head in both hands and was shaking it. “Permission to swear?”
“Noted,” replied Liam. That was their way of getting around the profanity filters. Not as satisfying as sharing the expletive aloud, but the sentiment was conveyed.
“Yep, the Earth’s rotation will slow a bit, so the standard day will be about twenty-eight-and-a-half hours instead of twenty-four. This will mess up a whole heap of other things, everything from the whole human calendar down to everyone’s watch,” said Liam as a bit of trivia. Cletus looked up long enough to roll his eyes.
“In summary, we seem to have created a real turd in a punch bowl. What do you think the ecologists will say about what we have done?” Liam asked, grateful for not having to talk.
Cletus put his head in his hands again and audibly drew in a breath, gathering the strength to speak.
“It looks really bad,” he started. “The tides are a real issue. The intertidal zones are the most productive of the marine ecosystems, and they’ll just die. Half of the organisms will drown, and the other half’ll dry out within a few days.”
“Spawning for most species is coordinated by the moon,” he continued, “so instead of targeted reproduction guided by the lunar cycles, they’ll just be at it all the time. Very inefficient.”
It was Liam’s turn to put his head in his hands, hoping it was just a dream.
“So, are we talking survivable?” Liam speculated.
“That would depend on what you consider being alive,” Cletus replied. “Growing our current crops will be impossible with the polar flip. The fisheries will collapse, and the vast majority of the biomass on Earth will be impacted. It will be like surviving a rapid-onset Ice Age or desertification process.”
“My turn to invoke the profanity filter,” muttered Liam, resisting the urge to unload a few curses of his own. He slumped a little further.
While checking his notes, Liam suddenly sat up, as if woken from a nap by someone dropping a spider on his neck.
With his finger tapping on the relevant scrawl, Liam spoke again. “I got one of my team to model the growth rate, and her projection is Gene will do this in 16 weeks. And nobody would really notice until about Wednesday on week 14.”
Cletus blinked in disbelief.
“Noticing the change that late is typical of the lily pad scenario,” Liam explained. Cletus looked at him blankly, but he continued.
“OK, say you have a Lilypad that doubles its area every day, and in thirty days it’ll cover the lake. Because the doubling is exponential, you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary until the lake is about one-eighth covered. By that time, though, you’re only three days away from seeing that lily pad completely cover the lake.”
Cletus noticeably stiffened up and then slowly, breaking the bonds of some unseen shackles, brought himself to his full height.
“What?!” he exclaimed. “Four months?! FUU—”
The screen went blank as the call was terminated automatically, leaving Liam to ponder the harm his friend may have just done to sensitive souls, if any were present illegally monitoring the call.
The pair wrapped up their conversation on chat, an action plan to validate the 16-week figure and settling on accountabilities to make sure they were clear. It was agreed that Liam would be the one to break the news up the chain – to those who would decide when the unsuspecting ecosystem including seven billion people should be informed. Normally happy to address the Head Honchos, as he rarely received resistance from them, Liam decided this was one meeting he wasn’t keen to attend. It wasn’t about a few hundred million dollars, something they understood; it was for the survival of the human race.
Gene, on the other hand, was happy with what was going on, apart from the fact that he was hearing voices.