invasive species

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

space is not as sterile as you think.

 

Invasive Species

Robert B. Lafosse

 

There was a great deal of excitement when the first larvae like things came out of the sea. They washed ashore in Japan, and at first were simply thought to be some unknown deep-sea species.

It was only after the National Institute for Basic Biology completed their analysis did anyone realize that something was different. The lack of DNA was the first giveaway. Since all living organisms store genetic code in DNA and RNA, the existence of a creature that lacked these building blocks of life raised some eyebrows. Everyone assumed they were living things, they exhibited at least one criteria for life - they moved on their own.

They were wormlike, milky things almost a meter long. They moved like slugs, crawling along the beaches where they were found, heading back towards the water. The Japanese fisherman who spotted them claimed that there were hundreds. Probably washed up by a rogue wave high on the beach, which then left them stranded. The fisherman managed to grab one and haul it off, caging it in a shack outside his home. He had the foresight to call a park ranger, since the Chubu national park lay only a few kilometers up the shoreline. Japan was paranoid of invasive species; they even had a law – the Invasive Alien Species Act, to help prevent reoccurrences of regrettable events, like the introduction of black widow spiders or rabbits.

Then the slugs showed up Australia.

Then the worms showed up in Africa.

It was when they landed on US shores did the alarm bells really start to ring. It wasn’t the appearance of the species; it was the volume of the appearance. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of the pulpy, eyeless white cocoons began washing ashore. It was noted that they only appeared in the semi tropical latitudes, leaving the more northerly beaches of Europe, Asia and North America free of the mysterious beasts. They had stopped crawling back to the sea. They languished in the sand, being pecked at by curious sea gulls, who gave up after a while, finding nothing edible.

They seemed to be more like rocks than anything else. No eyes, no mouth, no visible means to excrete waste material. They were an anomaly that zoologists around the world puzzled over. Some facts were clear from the beginning; they were not like any other creature on the planet, including tube worms in the depths of the Marianas trench or lichen clinging to life in the McMurdo dry valleys of Antarctica.

Tawara Benoki, a Philippine PhD candidate at the University of Auckland had one of the larvae on her table in the basement lab of the zoology department. She and Dr. Mika – a member of the faculty of Biology, were gowned up and were getting ready to dissect the thing, since it seemed – like all the others - to be dead. There were 3 cameras strategically located around the table to provide an unobscured view to the observers who were logged in, no matter where Tawara and Dr. Mika stood.

“Where should we make the first incision?” Tawara asked.

Dr. Mika chuckled behind his mask. “I have no idea,” He paused for a moment for a closer survey. It was the first one that had washed up on New Zealand shores. Both the Government and academia were interested in what this beastie was. The cameras were streaming a live feed to any interested parties. According to the IT people, at least a few thousand were currently online, watching Dr. Mika and Tawara agonizing over where to start slicing. “I think we will start at the wider end. You notice there is a slight taper to the body, with it being slightly narrower at this end.” He pointed to the far side of the table. “Otherwise there is no differentiation in the body to indicate a thorax, head or abdomen.”

He poised the scalpel at the crest of the curve as it met the top of the body. The scalpel sunk in easily, like it was a loaf of bread. The whiteness of the flesh extended down the length of the blade. Dr. Mika pulled the scalpel along, running the incision the whole length of the worm. When there was a gash a meter and a half long and 5 centimeters deep, they stood back to look.

“Nothing. Just white stuff” Tawara said.

“Cut off a few samples, from the top and bottom of the incision. Let’s get it looked at more closely”

“Yes sir,” said Tawara rather flippantly. She went to a side table and grabbed a couple of empty sterile dishes and sterile scissors. Reaching over to where Dr. Mika had made the cut, she snipped off a small amount of material from the outer skin. At the base of the cut, she cut off another small sample. She put one sample each dish and took them over to the microscope which was at the head of the main table.

They were using a fluorescence microscope to capture as much potential data as possible. Tawara put the dish from the exterior on the stage and used the eyepieces to focus. Her work could be seen on the screen above, as well as by the viewers since the camera on the scope was having the images broadcast.

Just crystalline structures. Each as unique as a snowflake. They spent a few minutes exploring various areas of the sample, then swapped it out for the second one.

Just crystalline structures. But these ones were closer together. They noticed this almost immediately and put the second one back on the stage to view the results side by side. Sure enough, the deeper tissue sample clearly showed a tighter arrangement of crystals.

Dr. Mika and Tawara were both curious. Mika took his scalpel and within the existing slash, cut even deeper. He immediately noticed an increased resistance as he pressed it home. “Looks like we were right Tawara, it definitely feels denser as I go deeper”. The cut was now about 10 centimeters deep. There was no difference in colour. Tawara took a sample from the deepest area, finding it to have the texture of a mango core.

The microscope confirmed their findings. The crystals were becoming intermeshed, their gear like edges locked together. The composition of the material had not changed, it had just become denser.  After another pass with the scalpel it became clear that the material was getting denser as they got deeper. The cut went down about 15 centimeters, at which point they could not penetrate the material with the scalpel.

The tried to cut around the circumference, starting at the narrow end and moving towards its slightly wider end. The hard core was proportional to the diameter of the slug. They took some detailed measurements of the current state and decided that the next step should be an MRI. They did not see the flurry of tweets and messages from the online watchers, preferring to be insulated from what they knew would an onslaught of unsolicited advice. If they had, they would have paid more attention to the requests for identification of the material structure, specifically - did it contain water? It seemed like it contained water. It had that wet texture to it, but the samples did not leak or excrete fluids of any kind.

When it blew up in the MRI machine, it caused a great deal of discussion.

The doctor and Tawara were unfortunate enough to be the first to try and examine the creature’s interior through the use of an MRI. Others had used ultrasound and X-rays, neither of which triggered the nastiness that was an exploding slug. The MRI wasn’t damaged since it was only the soft outer layer that got blow off. The inner core remained.

In America, bulldozers and diggers were dispatched to the beaches to clear the carcasses. Chemicals were thrown on them, fire was used, crushers and mangling devices were deployed. No matter what was done to them, the core material that made up about 50% of the body remained intact.

Ariel and satellite surveillance confirmed that just about every bit of coastline in the between 40 degrees north and south were packed with these things. Estimates started running in the millions or tens of millions.

The impact on the ecology was profound. Nesting areas were inaccessible, food supplies were cut off, the normal exchange of water in lagoons was strangled. It became a catastrophe.

Then they started to disappear.

 

 

 

Of course it was the Americans that noticed it first. They had turned their great media machine to this spectacle. It had become the mainstay of the infotainment industry. In the weeks from their appearance to when they started to disappear, the hipsters and trendoids had globed onto the phenomena. YouTube videos were made showing bizarre, disgusting or just plain weird uses and abuses of the slugs. Drinks were named after them and celebrity chefs made dishes patterned on the shape of the slugs. They became playthings for the attention deprived west.

When the holes appeared, the worry began.

Where once beaches were stacked 2 or 3 high up with the white pulpy beasts, they started to slowly disappear. The holes weren’t noticed at first, sand was pushed into them by the wind or the water, so they weren’t that obvious. When they were noticed, huge questioned were raised.

It just wasn’t the slugs on the beaches that started to disappear. The hundreds that had been collected for research purposes were found missing. The only evidence of their being there as a perfectly round hole, passing through whatever material was under the slug.

Probes were sent down the holes to find out where they were. The slugs were found a few hundred meters down, slowly descending through bedrock. How on earth were they boring through solid rock? There was no debris, no spoil tip. The material they were removing was just disappearing.

“You have to look at this,” said Morgan, he was pointing to his monitor.

Morgan was using some compute time on Vulcan, a supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.  He had created a model based on the number of slugs that were estimated (985 million) and the amount of material they were displacing. He wanted to see what the effect of their boring was having on the crust. He was doing his post graduate work on the structure of the tectonic plates.

His partner, a tall, quintessentially German girl by the name of Belinda with piercing blue eyes, glanced at his screen. “And what am I looking at?” she asked in perfect English and just a hint of accent.

“These numbers... if my formula is correct, at the current rate that these things are eating through the crust, the amount of mass which is disappearing is astounding”.

“Astounding isn’t very precise.” Belinda quipped. “It doesn’t really tell me much... other than it is astounding”, she used air quotes to punctuate the point. Morgan swivelled in his chair and looked at her “1% of the crust has disappeared. Or about 1E+23 kilograms of material.” He sank back in his chair. “Where did it all go?” he mused.

“You are assuming that each and every slug is sinking down those holes at the same rate and the material is in essence gone?” Belinda asked.

“Yes, and my number of slugs is an estimate. I based it on the density of them on the coastline. I assumed that the count would be a little high and took that estimate and cut it back by 5%. I also assumed that there were no other slugs in the water that we didn’t know about. I have to send these numbers to the Geodesic service. They commissioned the study, but I never thought it would look like this”, he spun back to the screen and started piling together files.  It took about an hour for Morgan to write his summary report. He fired a copy off to Belinda for review and a sanity check.

He watched her as she read the files. Her solid Germanic features a contrast to the blond hair and blue eyes. Not a beauty, but a very handsome woman he thought. Of course the tee shirt and jeans she wore made the whole package much more attractive. In the past they had rock climbed together and she had a toned, athletic body that made following her almost a pleasure.

As usual Morgan had made a few spelling and grammatical errors, which Belinda was more than happy to point out. She couldn’t fault his math though, nor the results from the simulation. They were more concerned about the extrapolated results. The initial numbers simply dealt with missing mass at this time based on soundings of the holes. The rate of descent of the creatures was pretty consistent, about 100 meters a day. If they kept going, the amount of earth that was disappearing would grow. They still hadn’t reached the upper mantle yet. He was worried what would happen when they did.

Morgan’s email arrived in Simon Curry’s mailbox just before he was about to leave for the day. He had been waiting for this data and postponed fighting the beltway traffic in order to review it. As he plowed through the reams of data and the synopsis, he started to get a profound feeling of dread.

He was worried about what would happen when these things reached the core rigidity zone. About 1,800 miles beneath the surface, Earth's internal structure changes abruptly where the solid rock of the mantle meets the swirling molten iron of the outer core.

He was worried because the nature of the core-mantle boundary influences phenomena ranging from the behavior of Earth's magnetic field to the massive plumes of hot rock that rise through the mantle and erupt on the surface at volcanic hot spots such as Hawaii. The interaction of core-rigidity zones with the magnetic field can also affect the earth’s magnetic field.

In the 1990s, seismic tomography showed the existence of "ultra-low velocity zones" at the base of the mantle, which some scientists interpret as evidence of partial melting of the mantle. An ultra-low velocity zone overlaps the area of a core-rigidity zone.

The boundary is a result of the growth of the solid inner core. As the Earth cools and heat flows out of the core, iron from the molten outer core solidifies onto the inner core. This increases the concentration of lighter elements in the outer core, and if those elements are near the saturation point they will also solidify out. But because they are lighter than iron, they will float to the top of the core and collect at the core-mantle boundary.

It is an upside-down puddle formed by material rising up to the top of the core. It is a tough skin that keeps the mantle contained. The thought of these little beasties gnawing threw it worried Simon.

Temperature goes up 25 degrees Celsius for each kilometer you go down. The slugs have been moving at about a100 meters a day for almost 30 days, that means they about 3 kilometers down – running at 75 Celsius. The daily sounding reports Simon was receiving were not showing any slow down. In some areas the temperatures were much higher than the 75 degrees.

What was surprising was the lack of blow outs from the holes. Until it was found that as the slugs passed through the layers of rock, they actually changed the molecular structure of the rock. It became a crystalline type lattice. Surprisingly like the makeup of the slugs themselves.

 

The meeting was held in the Greek Theater at Berkley. The venue had to have lots of seating due to the number of delegates and interested parties attending.

The invitation had gone out from the President’s Special Science Advisor – P. Bartholomew Rice, after being briefed on the data thus far received on the slugs and their boring into the earth’s crust.  More of a summons than an invite. The government was footing the bill for travel and accommodations, with the caveat that the proceedings would be held in confidence, the Science Advisor being the one source for communiqués. A very impressive none disclosure agreement had to be signed in order to gain admittance, threatening loss of liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness if unauthorized information was divulged. The whole thing was being very low key. The attention deficiency disorder of the general population created by content on demand meant that the interest in the slugs was waning as they disappeared from the coastlines and the online mouth breathers, but there were still holes that peppered the landscape that were constantly raising questions.

A portly gentleman in a dark blue suit approached the podium. He held a sheaf of papers in his hand. At the lectern, he did the obligatory adjustment of the microphone. No wireless was allowed in the room. People had been asked to give up their electronics at the door. An affront to many. If you tried to make a cell phone call in the immediate vicinity of the Greek Theatre, your phone would show no bars and be telling you there was no service. Courtesy of the NSA.

The lights dimmed and the screen behind Mr. Rice jumped to life with the emblem of the Science Advisor. “Ladies and gentleman, if we could get started,” he peered over his glasses at the room. The low murmur of voices hushed.

“We’ve asked you all here today to discuss the phenomena that some are calling slugs, others worms, others larvae. Whatever you call them, they are completely unknown to us. We don’t know where they came from, we don’t know what they are and we don’t know what they are doing. To quote Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know.  At some point over the next few days, we would like get rid of some of these ‘don’t knows’ and start filling in the blanks. This is what we do know.”

He turned from the podium to face the screen. The emblem faded from view and was replaced by graphic of the earth, circling in space. The view zoomed in to a lower altitude, focussing on coastlines. The coastline glowed in white in the equatorial and tropical latitudes, tapering to an off white further north. “This is the infected area. Every square inch of coastline between approximately 40 north and south.” The earth view rotated on the screen to show the entire globe. “They apparently emerged from the ocean, landed on the beaches and remained there for approximately 30 days.”

“So the first question is, are they maritime creatures? Are they some sort of extreme deep water species that we have not yet encountered? We will dive into that question later.” A bad pun the thought. He motioned to the screen again. “This is the status of things as of yesterday.” The whiteness had disappeared from all the coastal areas. “Gone, every one of them. Nothing left but a hole, about 60cm in diameter, down which we know they have gone because we sent probes in”.

“Now this is the puzzling, scary and downright spooky part. Some of these things were housed in various research labs. Sitting on tables or in jars or however they were stored. These ones disappeared as well. I think there are a few holes in the Berkley Bio building, which the Dean is quite displeased with.” The bad joke was met with a few muffled guffaws.

Mr. Rice continued his overview of the situation, outlining the disastrous economic affects these things had on the tourist business, the damage to coastal areas and the strange makeup of the creatures.

“Now I want to show you something that is not to leave this room.” He adopted the body language of a preacher, grasping both sides of the lectern and turning his head as he surveyed the audience. “This is new data, which we just confirmed yesterday. This has come from the NASA’s Jason-2 satellite. It can measure ocean height to within a few centimeters.”

He turned again to the screen. A graph appeared with horizontal axis that was time, and a vertical access that showed average ocean height. The line was straight, with the time starting the day the slugs appeared on the beach. At the time of the disappearance, the line started to take a slight downward path. The last data point for time was yesterday, and according to the chart, the height of the oceans had dropped by 8 centimeters.

A rumble went around the room. “At this point” he indicated the disappearance date, “we assume that there were creatures in the water as well as those on shore. If we do the math based on the volume of water missing and the known size of the holes that are created, we estimate that there are at least 100 million of these things borrowing through the ocean floor right now.” The room exploded with voices.  

Morgan and Belinda were sitting together in the theater. Morgan looked at her and mouthed “holy shit”. He pulled out his calculator (they were allowed to keep those) and started punching in values. He leaned over to her. “If this is right, then the amount of crust mass being consumed is at least 10% higher then what I first predicted.” Belinda nodded. She was thinking as well.

“The oceanic crust is only about 10km thick” Belinda said, having to raise her voice over the hubbub, “That means the creatures will probably be through to the mantle in the next few days.”

They turned their attention back to the science advisor. “So ladies and gentleman, the problem just got a whole lot more complicated. I am asking you to assist us in finding out what the scope of this problem is. Here are the things that we think are top of the list to ascertain” A slide popped up. A power point packed with questions. “We are going to pass out copies of this to you as well. In addition, we will be posting this information on our website. The access codes are in the handouts. What we want now is discretion. We don’t want to have a panic on our hands.” He leaned on the podium again, “I know what I am asking goes against your grain. I know that your instinct is to share information and consult with your peers. I am not asking you stop doing that. I am asking that we keep some of this information out of the public eye until we have more answers. You are an intelligent crowd and want to found out the truth. News organizations are not. They are seeking to sensationalize and capitalize on panic. I won’t even mention the pundits on the web.” This one got a heartier laugh.

“We have the entire facility booked for the next few days. I would ask that you spend that time conferring with your colleagues here, sharing the information you have. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can make some headway in understanding what we are dealing with.  On this note I would ask that you mingle with your colleagues, share ideas. You will notice that we have taken the liberty of breaking up you up into groups. Each group has representatives from as many disciplines as we could muster. Note the room assigned to you. Each room has iPads, internet connectivity, printers and projectors. I hope that we can make some headway. Tomorrow morning we will have a panel discussion on this stage with one representative from each group. Let’s see what we come up with.  Thank you for your time.” With that he took his papers and left the stage. A functionary came up to the podium and started providing some logistic information. But everything they really needed was on the handouts they were provided.

Belinda and Morgan started shuffling out of the main theatre with the rest of the mob. They had checked their handouts and knew they were looking for room 2-044. Being Berkleyites, they knew some of the layout of the complex, so they didn’t have to ask for help from the people hovering in the foyer with “Information” buttons pinned to their chests.

They found it, a 24 person conference room with an iPad in front of each chair, a projector already fired up, pens, pads of paper and portable white boards. A pack of white board markers were in on top of the laptops.

“Wow” said Morgan as he looked around, “they really want us to do something.” There was one of those ubiquitous khaki panted, blue shirted information people in the room.

“Hi, my name is Rob. I am to take the role of facilitator for this meeting”, he said, “And you are...?”

They gave their names.

He scrolled through his screen on his iPad and touched it in a few spots. “You are the first ones. Grab a seat wherever you want. Just to let you know, I am here to get whatever you want, food, supplies, whatever.”

“Ummm – thanks I guess”, said Morgan. He and Belinda grabbed the two chairs furthest from what looked like the head of the table.

More people trickled in. Eventually Rob had whatever he needed on his iPad and he shut the door.

“Hello everyone, again my name is Rob and I am here to make sure everyone has everything they need. This cohort is actually going to be chaired by Professor Laz Galleria,” and he pointed to a wirily little man with a military moustache and no hair. “Professor Galleria is the head of Chemical Engineering at MIT and has graciously offered his services.”

“Without further ado, I would like to hand things over to Professor Galleria. If you have any needs such as food, drink or additional office supplies let me know”

The small man limped up to the top of the table. His voice was deep and commanding, which you would not have guessed looking at him. “Ladies and Gentleman, I think we can dispense with the normal meeting related crap such as where the bathrooms are and turn off your cell phones.”  Heads nodded.

“Sorry if I don’t come across as politically correct, but we have a big fucking problem here.” This seemed to distract the few that were fiddling with the pads. “These things, whatever they are, don’t have a chemical or physical composition that matches anything I have yet seen. The crystalline makeup of their body defies logic. The ability to seemingly pass through solid material without leaving any spoil or displace material is mindboggling. I want to throw the floor open for speculation at this point, I don’t care how wild it is. In order not to have chaos, I’m going to start here”, and he pointed to a matronly woman on his left, “and go around the table. Introduce yourself and give us all your thoughts on what we are dealing with, please – go ahead”, he motioned to the woman.

“My name is Madeline Albright. I am a molecular physicist out of Stanford. In looking at the structure of the entities, the closest correlation I can find is that of ceramics.” She went into a diatribe about the makeup of ceramics.  She ended with “They are, or at least show, all the properties of a superconducting material”.

“Superconducting?” said the Professor, “That’s something we didn’t know before. He went up to the white board and wrote at the top “Superconductive?”.

In the seat next to her was Ralph Fisk, a botanist from the National Park service. “Based on what I do know, I can say a few things. It is not a plant, at least not in the sense we know of plants. Even the most basic form of plant life needs some sort of nutrient and excretes some sort of waste. This thing absorbs, but doesn’t excrete”. The professor thought that this was a good data point and in a column next to Superconducting, the put “absorbs, does not excrete”. Ralph went on a bit longer about how plants differ from non-plants. No matter what category he brought up, the slugs did not fit.

It took a while for the introductions and for most of the people to say what little they had to add at this point. Belinda had the opportunity to speak before Morgan. “We,” and she nodded to Morgan, “have been looking at the loss of material from the crust based on the number of slugs. We ran some models and simulations, which we would show you if we had connectivity,” she shot a glance at Robert, who was busily tapping something into his iPad. “Generalizing at this point, we theorize that the actual crust material is disappearing and about .25% of the material that makes up the lithosphere has vanished.” This news was greeted with silence. “What we didn’t know before today is that there is a submarine process occurring as well. It is more worrying since the oceanic crust is thinner than the troposphere layer.” Belinda went into some detail as to how they did their calculations.

Professor Galleria added a third column to the whiteboard listing. “Consuming earth’s crust material”

Morgan simply introduced himself and bowed out saying Belinda had provided all the information. Beside Morgan was Peter McLowland, a metallurgical specialist for NASA.

“What I can tell you from what I’ve looked at is that the changes to the material they pass through as they do their boring is profound.” He ran his finger through what was left of his hair, one of those men who attempt to camouflage their baldness by growing it long on the sides and dragging it over the top of their heads. “what would normally be plain jane silica and minerals has become, as Ms. Albright said, almost a ceramic. The weirdness here is that ceramic layer they create going through rock is ridiculously thin. I’m saying a couple of nanometers at best. And it is incredibly strong for the thinness. You can break it with a great deal of effort, but if this material was a millimeter thick, it would be stronger than any material we currently have. The molecular structure looks like bucky balls without the carbon.” More information was provided to backup his arguments for the strength of the material.

The professor added to the mind map on the white board, “Changes molecular structure of material” in under the consuming earth crust entry. “Do we know if this material is also has superconductor properties?” he asked. The response was negative.

He jumped to another white board and wrote “Assess changed material properties – superconductive?”.

“Good, now we know something we don’t know.”

Apparently quite a few others now knew things that they did not know.

The panel discussion started at 9 the next morning. Despite the fact that many of the seminars continued well into the wee hours of the morning. The dress was casual; ties were gone, as were jackets. It was roll up the sleeves time. The various facilitators had enabled limited web access on the supplied iPad, and everyone had brought one.

The Science Advisor again mounted the podium. It was in the middle of a table that extended to the edge of the stage on each side of him. Seated at the table were the leaders of the various seminars that were held. Behind them were flip charts and white boards, with various diagrams, writings and formula on them.

“Let’s get started shall we”, and Mr Rice looked to the left and right. “Based on the findings of last night’s brainstorming session, we want to review with the whole group what we think we know.” A low murmur from the room. “Starting at the left, Miles Winthrop’s group – Miles can you give us a recap?”

An ordinary looking middle-aged man in a polo shirt and jeans stood up and pulled the flip chart behind him closer to the table. He took the mike that was on the table in front of him and stood beside the chart, assuming the ‘giving a lecture’ position which all of them were familiar with.

“Can we get the camera to throw this up on the screen?” he asked. The screen, which was simply projecting the logo of the science office flickered and steadied, with the flip chart and Miles suddenly looming over the assembly.

“Our group tried to look into the lifecycle of these things, asking the question -  what are they doing,” he paced in front of the flip chart and started pointing to the numbered lists, “number 1 – they came out of the water. Of that we are almost 100% positive. So we wanted to determine how they got in the water in the first place. Our hypothesis included:

  1. They are a form of hereunto undiscovered deep sea life form. Discounted due to lack of DNA and RNS.
  2. They are a ‘new’ life form. Some sort of spontaneous mutation from an existing form. Discounted to do lack of precedence and any potential precursive life form.
  3. They are an introduced species to this planet. Strongest possible indication, since prior to the beaching of the things, the Perseids meteor shower was observed to be the longest and most active ever recorded. Usually there is one meteor per minute. This year there were up to 50 meteors per minute, and most of the entry tracts were over the mid latitudes.

“If we follow up with the 3rd hypothesis,” again he pointed to the flipchart, “it can explain a number of things - the unusual chemical and molecular composition, the strange ‘boring’ behaviour, the lack of any evidence to show they already existed.”

“It could also be that we are using ‘magic’ as an explanation, since to disprove this would as difficult as it would be to prove it.”

Of course the notion that the worms were extraterrestrial bogy men triggered heated discussion.

Rice brought the room back to order. The various leaders presented their cases. At one point it came to an incredibly obese man who looked like a soccer ball held together with suspenders. His Kim Jong-Un haircut didn’t help manners any. Pushing his glasses up his nose, he rose and pointed out his flip chart.

“Our big concern in looking at this was - where was the material going? As Professor Galleria pointed out earlier, there is a lot of crust simply disappearing. These figures, “he gestured to the chart, “are estimates of the amount of mass which has been removed. I mean removed in the truest sense of the word, since the material is gone, no longer here.” He shifted a bit and tugged his trousers. “We looked at a few things – the progress of the slugs, the remnants they don’t leave.”

“One – we know based out discussions so far that they don’t excrete and they don’t increase in size as they ‘consume’ the material.”

“Two – the structure of the things is something we have not encountered before. And three, we are starting to seriously consider the notion that they are not from this world.”

“We didn’t have the time to dive into a lab and do some hardcore analysis, but based on what we have found we are speculating that the material is undergoing a change in quantum state that effectively causes it to disappear. No idea of how this change of state is being instigated. This theory is built upon the fact that there is no other explanation – other than what Miles said – magic.” He let the laughter subside. “And we don’t do magic here at Berkeley.”

“I believe we can test this theory. If we are looking at a breakdown of mass due to changes in energy levels of the baryons, then there should be some indication of this energy dissipation. The laws of conservation of mass should still apply here. I suggest we get the folks at CERN involved. We can modify the Antiproton Decelerator to detect W and Z gauge bosons.”

 

 

It was Fermilab that actually made the first detections. SELEX, the segmented Large-X baryon spectrometer experiment was running. At almost the same time as the portly Professor Wannamaker of the University of Chicago was making his statement in the Greek theater, an overworked post graduate student by the name Kim Park was reviewing the data from SELEX. He thought there was a problem. The logging service on the detector has filled all the available storage, crashing the system.

Kim groaned, knowing that it would take at least most of the day to sort out this mess.  Resigning himself to his fate, he started plodding through the data warehouse, separating the wheat from the chaff.

It took a while, but the knowledge gradually dawned on him that this was no program error causing a massive overflow of data. It was a massive data flow. The detector was registering literally trillions of hits per second, totally overwhelming the capacity of the system. Not only was this odd, it shouldn’t be happening. SELEX might, on a good day, get a few dozen hits. To get trillions per second was a wild anomaly.

To be sure that there was not some sort of hardware issue, Kim checked every component in the spectrometer. He powered down and restarted SELEX a number of times. Each time it started the detector went through the roof.

For some reason most of the senior people were off on some junket in California. Nonetheless, he composed an email, cc’ing everyone and including files containing his findings. There wasn’t much else he could do.

Professor Wannamaker received the email as he was returning to his chair. Whoever was controlling their access to the internet must be allowing certain emails through. He was going to ignore it and pay attention to the remainder of the presentations until he saw the subject line – Baryon detection levels unexplainably high. He popped over the mail. Of course he thought to himself, SELEX would be detecting any baryons.

“Excuse me,” he interrupted a wild haired woman with thick plastic rimmed glasses who was going on about the impact of sea level decline. “I just received an email from a colleague at Fermilab. The baryon detector experiment there is showing a huge surge of baryon activity, basically off the map. This has never been seen before. We are talking of trillions hits per second. Far in excess of background activity.”

 

 

Morgan was listening to Kid Rock sing about summer time in North Michigan.  He was tapping away at the pitiful iPad they had given him, lamenting the lack of access to anything even remotely resembling a real computer. The good thing was that he could bounce requests for processing to those still at the UCLA lab.

Belinda was sprawled on the bed, her beautiful ass sticking out of the covers. She and Morgan had had a few drinks after the marathon presentation (he having the fore thought to pack a bottle of Makers Mark in his bag before leaving LA). After a few shots, they retired to his room and had a semi drunken, somewhat frantic early morning round of sucking, fucking and pawing. A gnawing feeling in the back of his head told him that they had to live for the here and now, since the future might not be so rosy.

Kid Rock ended and Maroon Five was interrupted by an email from Ross, one of the more competent post grads he worked with.

There were odd things happening in the substrata below California. The seismographic data was pouring in, indicating some very strange movement.

“Oh my God,” said Belinda, “I think my brain is going to explode,” she was sitting up in the bed, cradling her head. Her blond hair was a mess and she looked decidedly unsexy, despite sitting without a stitch of clothes. Jumping up, she sprinted for the bathroom. The door slamming was followed by the sound of retching.

Morgan reached into his bag and pulled out a pill container. He dropped two in his hand and went over to the bathroom door. “Lindy, I’ve got something to help with that hangover.” He listened as the toilet flushed. The door opened, she stood there looking like absolute shit. “Here – a couple of oxy. They fixed me up this morning. I thought I was going to die. Have to eat and drink though, otherwise when it wears off you’ll still have a residual hangover.” She squinted at him through sad, red rimmed, bloodshot eyes.  The light and luster they had last night was gone, replaced by a matt finish radiating pain.

“I just hope I can keep them down long enough to work.” She grabbed them from his outstretched hand and retreated back into the bathroom. A few moments later he heard the shower running.

Hours earlier Morgan been awoken by a midget hammering nails into the back of his eyeballs. His tongue was scraping along what seemed like mucusy slime a snail with diarrhea had left on his teeth. He was sure he was going to die. The nausea he felt was due to his head pounding. Dragging himself from bed and ignoring his beloved Lindy, he skulked into the bathroom and greedily drank as much water as he could handle.

Moaning, waves of pain crashing against his head with each step, he sought out his stash of Oxy, which he kept for just such occasions. He cursed the pharmaceutical industry for child proof caps as he struggled to get the bottle open. Popping 2 in his mouth, the crawled back into bed and willed the drugs to do their magic.

It only took about 15 minutes, but to him it was more like hours. Like a puddle on a hot day, the pain evaporated. Once it was gone he managed to get into the shower, and by the time it was finished, he felt like a new man. His mouth still tasted like shit, but a quick breakfast would fix that.

He dressed and left the room quietly. Belinda was gently snoring and he didn’t want to wake her. He knew how she would be feeling when she woke up and wanted her to stay unconscious as long as possible.

“This is like a banking run,” Morgan overheard someone say as he was siphoning a coffee from the stainless steel urn in the hotel’s restaurant; “Everyone is pulling their money out for some reason.” The guy was wearing the blue suit, white shirt and red tie what was de rigor for those in the upper strata of the business world. He balanced his plate from the buffet in one hand and carried a small leather case in the other. Must be high up thought Morgan. Only senior people just carry papers.

Maybe it was the Oxy, maybe it was the discussion he and Lindy had last night, or maybe it was just the bizarre fucked up notion of white slugs borrowing through the earth’s crust, but he felt very uneasy. She did to, hence what happened last night.

The coffee tasted good. He grabbed an orange juice as well. Knocked it back. Then another one. He took just the coffee back to the room. It was gone by the time Lindy had scrambled to the can to honk her guts out.

 

The shower stopped. Lindy came out of the washroom, a towel on her head, wearing a bath robe supplied by the hotel. “I think the Oxy is kicking in,” she said in her slight German accent. She went over to Morgan kissed him on the head. “It must be, I’m finding you attractive.”

Morgan had called up Google news and was flipping through the stories. Top of the list were articles about banks having unprecedented withdrawals. ATM’s across the country were empty of money. This was causing people to go to the tellers. The momentum was beginning. Empty ATM’s were causing worry, then lineups at the bank, then news reports on the whole thing. The guy this morning was right.

“I think we are fucked” he muttered.

“Huh – what do you mean fucked?” Lindy asked. A look of concern on her face.

“This thing that’s happening. I’m pretty sure we are in for some major seismic activity, but before that happens there is an initial affect on society”. He flipped to another story about large scale purchases of guns. Another story of massive traffic jams occurring as people leave the areas along the sea shores. Another story of how the tides in certain areas are at historic low levels. The Panama Canal is barely navigable.

He shook his head. “I don’t think there is a damn thing we can do.”

Lindy sat looking down at the commercial grade carpet. “I should call my parents.” She pulled out her cell phone (they gave them back when they left the conference last evening) and told the phone to call home. It responded by saying that the call could not be completed at this time.

“I think the cell system is getting overloaded,” she said. “I’ll try a landline. We aren’t paying for this anyway.” She punched in the multitude of numbers required to make a call to Germany. She received the rapid tone that indicated the call failed to go through.

“Odd,” she said as she put the phone down.

She sat on the bed. “Let’s think this through based on what we found out.” She said, “the crust is full of these things. They are eating away at it. From what we heard, the matter is being displaced and reduced to energy. Some of the energy is being excreted – but what about the rest of it? There is a lot of matter to disappear.” She got up and rummaged in mini fridge. There were two Perrier’s in there. She grabbed them both.

“I think,” said Morgan, “that they are growing down there, and that is where the energy is being used. Look at this,” he brought the iPad over and sat on the bed, “Bill sent me these readings this morning. I asked him to run the readings from the seismological stations. There is a lateral movement now of the slugs. They have stopped about 120 km down and started to go sideways. Can’t tell until we do some soundings exactly what the spread is.”

Two days after the meeting in Berkeley, the earthquakes started.

Tawara was at home, making tea when the first tremor hit. The Richter scale is logarithmic – each increment is 10 times higher than the previous. The scale goes to ten. This one was cranking it to 11.  At first, she thought it was small, there was some noticeable shaking of dishes, the pictures were moving a bit. But it didn’t stop. The shaking increased every minute. The books were falling out of the bookshelf. She heard the glass cracking and breaking. It didn’t stop. The plaster walls were cracking and furniture itself was moving about the room. Still it didn’t stop. She tried to make it to the door, dropping the tea pot and scalding her leg. Stumbling, she tripped. She was being flung about on the wildly oscillating floor and could not stand up.

The 8 story apartment building she lived in was earthquake hardened. But that didn’t save the occupants. The floors pancaked down, leaving Tawara beneath tons of rubble.

Dr. Mika was in his office at the University, 40 km away. He heard a faint rumble, then the shaking began. This was an old building and Dr. Mika was from Japan and took no chances, he bolted for the door. His office was on the first floor and the exit just a few meters down the hall. As he was leaving the shaking increased in intensity. He moved as fast as his 50 year legs would carry him away from the building. The ground was wildly bouncing about at this point and he could barely stand up. Dropping to the grass, he felt he was in a small dory, trapped between waves. But the waves were the ground around him, they rose meters and dropped. As the waves hit the Bioscience office building, it literally disintegrated in front of him. In a blink of an eye it was a pile of rubble. Trees around him were flattened and their roots exposed to the air as if a giant had ripped them out of the ground.

He had lived through many earthquakes, but he had never seen one like this. As he gazed into the distance he could see the ground moving on the horizon. He looked around, all the campus buildings were piles of rubble, yet the ground kept shaking. He was starting to panic. Trapped on this undulating ground, he had no idea what to do. He worried about this wife and daughter; they were home in the city.

He found his cell phone. It was like being on a bus on a bumpy road as he opened it up and pressed the call button. There was nothing. He looked at the bars on top. No bars. No carrier was showing either.  Shit he thought, this is not good. As he sat there, wallowing on the convulsing ground, he knew in his guts that this was the result of those creatures that were brought in a month or so ago. Their disappearance down holes was an astonishing revelation. The shear multitude of them. A cold fear gripped his heart as the waves slowly subsided. The roaring that was tortured earth heaving and buildings crashing gradually subsided. Birds filled the sky with their cries. The collapsed campus area was shrouded in a haze of dust. “Oh my god” he said to himself as he climbed to his feet. Not a building was standing. A few dazed people were seen. A few were running towards the buildings to see if they could rescue of help anyone. Mika was not interested. He knew no one was going to survive.

He also realized that there would be no help coming. One look at the road, torn and mangled like a child’s racing set broken up and needing reassembly confirmed what he knew. This is utter destruction.

Seven PM the day before in Santa Cruz, Belinda and Morgan were sitting in the backyard of Morgan’s parent’s house. The sun had just set and they were each having a Corona. “Should we tell your parents? I mean, they might want to do something.” She had been depressed ever since they left Berkeley the day before. No matter how many times she tried, she could not get through to her parents. She did send an email, but they were not computer literate and rarely turned the old laptop on that they had hidden in the corner of their house outside Frankfurt. “We are sitting on top of one the worse fault lines in the country.”

She looked at him. His wild hair and unshaven face reflected a sobriety that she had never seen before. Usually he was playful, irrelevant, almost annoyingly so. But he too had changed in the past few days. More serious, more introspective, yet more loving and caring than he had ever been. He was constantly touching her, holding hands, tapping his fingers on her leg, always staying close. As if soon he would not be able to do this any longer.

“I am reminded of those moral dilemma scenarios they throw at medical students.” He said, taking a swig of beer, “You are a doctor, and a patient comes in with some sort of simple problem, a sore throat or an earache. You do your tests and find out that they have an incurable disease that will kill them within a few months. There is nothing you can do. The disease is such that they will be fine until a day or two before they die, then they will suddenly fall ill, have fever, convulsions and then pass away. Do you tell them? What would be the point? Perhaps they could get their affairs in order, but assume there are no affairs, no family, nothing.” He looked at her. “What would you do?”

She stared at the white picket fence that surrounded the back yard. A swing hung from a huge oak in one corner of the lot. There was a long pause. “I would wait to tell him. I would wait until he showed the symptoms. Then I could treat them and make his last hours more comfortable.”

He leaned over and looked at her. “I think we are showing symptoms Lindy,” he bent over and picked uplaptop. “Last 10 minutes. Largest earthquake I’ve ever seen. Anyone has seen. Off the scale. It was in New Zealand.” He flipped the screen at her to see the chart. She stared at him. “Minimum, this is minimum of 8 on the Mercalli intensity. That makes is 9 or better on the Richter scale”.

“It is what I thought would happen with this loss of mass. The earth is going to start shaking itself apart”. She muttered this more to herself than to Morgan. “There is nothing we can do – is there?”

“Short of getting off the planet – nothing,” he said.

“How long do you think?”

“Not long,” said Morgan. “Any minute now I would expect to be feeling some major quakes.”

The complete collapse of the global communication system prevented word of what was happening in other parts of the world from being spread. Even the hardened military installation, designed to survive nuclear weapons, were not immune to mammoth quakes that shook the ground the way a terrier shakes a rat.

There was no real epicenter. This was not tectonic plates slipping with a massive release of energy. This was the planet itself adjusting to the change in mass. The findings of the scientists in the Greek Theater were moot points as cities crumbled, whole pieces of land masses shifted, rose, dropped or turned sideways. The lucky ones died quickly, crushed by falling material. Those, like Miko, who survived the initial quakes, eventually succumbed to the subsequent violent shakes, some so powerful that they tossed objects on the ground into the air. When these objects were people, they were either injured or killed.

As the rotational state of the planet changed, the oceans themselves were thrown into a turmoil. Despite being shallower than they were, they were still vast bodies of water. When the quakes were submarine, they triggered gargantuan tsunamis, some of which flowed deep inland as the land was now lower than it was before. All the land appeared to be sinking, just as the oceans. Within a week of the first quakes, only a few spots on the planet had any life clinging to them.  Santa Cruz was not one of them.

 

 

They ate planets. But they are picky eaters. They only like watery ones. Warm watery ones. Ones that live in the Goldilocks zone. Floating in space for eons, the debris, the remnants of their last meal, is captured in a systems gravitational pull. If they are lucky, they get pulled sunward. If they are very lucky, there are planets. Untold numbers of the spores plummet to their demise on gas giants, on rocky airless rocks, on frozen worlds or hot house planets baked by their mother stars. If they are very, very lucky, there is a watery world, with just the right properties. Warm, salty water. The fiery heat of entry through the atmosphere exposes the spores and raises their energy level high enough to start the growth process.

The ocean they land in feeds them. Absorbing the dissolved salts and minerals. It takes a few months, but they eventually take on their characteristic white, slug like form.  Another stage in their bizarre lifecycle. Some settle to the bottom of the oceans. Some remain neutral in buoyancy. The slugs help a bit by using their limited ability to move to align themselves to be carried to shore. How they know where the shore is remains a mystery.

Confusion reigns when they end up on the shore. They are usually still in the mobility phase and suddenly inverse their shore finding instincts and seek to return to the water. But this doesn’t last long. An internal timer transitions them almost as one to their ultimate task, planet eating.

Eating a planet is a hard thing to do. Planets are big, have different properties depending which level you are dealing with, the surface, subterranean, underwater, the mantle, the core. Moving from the benign surface to the hostile interior is not for the faint of heart or weak of spirit. Since the slugs had neither of these, it was of no consequence.

Their strange skin sloughed off, revealing their extraordinarily hard core.  If you were there to watch when they started their disappearing act, you would notice they slowly tipped, the slightly skinnier end sinking into the ground. The quantum coating on their skin destroying and transmitting the very matter to their hungry mother.

Each one slowly sinks through the material it is sitting on. Slipping a few meters per minute through the mass of the planet. The energy they need to do the boring is not infinite. If they don’t get to the hot interior of the planet within a few weeks of emergence, they can no longer sustain the quantum transport and end up becoming trapped in their host. Once the temperature gets over 300 Celsius and they are encased in the crust, they get the vigor they need for the next metamorphosis.

Flattening, they knife through the hot rock, seeking to link with one another. At this depth and temperature, the surface is now irrelevant. The polar regions that they were unable to access, they now encroach upon. Beneath the surface of the plant, a cancerous growth reaches around the globe. The heat from the core providing the energy needed for the top layer to rip apart the very source of matter, relocating it to another phase of existence. Sending it to their creator, their mother. That meant nothing to the planet that was slowly being consumed. As the mass was displaced, physics starts to take its toll. A spinning planet has an equilibrium brought about by millions of years of geological evolution. Once stabilized, there are no changes that adversely affect rotation. Unless of course you start removing billions of tons of material in a short time.

Usually the planet will start to wobble. Like an unbalanced wheel on a car. And like an unbalanced wheel on a car, it will shake. As the imbalance becomes greater, the shaking will increase until the internal forces and the instability cause it literally tear itself apart.

Not very good form for an organism to destroy its host. But this all part of the cycle. Clinging to the scattered debris like so many rats on a sinking ship, the slugs go through yet another metamorphosis. They break down to the form they had when they made the fiery re-entry into the atmosphere, becoming pebble, dust and almost molecular sized hunks, rocks to the casual observer. They are now spores and they start their long voyage through the galaxy, seeking the next warm, watery world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: January 26, 2021

© Copyright 2021 RB Lafosse. All rights reserved.

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