by Christina De La Rocha
Originally published in Analog
The skies are grey with low, rolling clouds and the ocean is a deep, empty green as the drone drops gut-twirlingly down. The balding man in a brown suit and tie looks up, watching as I am deposited on the platform and men in jumpsuits jump up to offload my gear.
“Thank God,” the man says as I approach him. “It’s the marine biologist.”
I blink at the man for a moment. His meaning was loud and clear. You swim with dolphins and are a colossal waste of my time.
He sets his jaw and extends his hand. “Robert Robinson,” he says. This makes him the local facility director, at wits’ end.
“Professor Monique Jackson,” I reply. That makes me the cultivatable marine life whisperer here to save his sorry ass.
My trunk disappears down the big hatch, en route to their lab, taking with it my basic essentials: mask, fins, snorkel, and wetsuit; pen-sized pulse-amplitude modulation fluorometer; similarly pen-sized pH-meter with oxygen microelectrode; DNA microarrays; filters, gloves, pipettes, collection bags, sterile sample bottles; a pocket-sized, digitized set of identification keys for microplankton and invertebrates; and energy bars, toiletries, two changes of clothes, and, for the stand around and wait times, a couple of the lurid celebrity biographies that horrify Fred, my literature-loving librarian spouse. This means for the moment, I’ll have to make do with what remains on my person: one heavy duty asthma inhaler, my favorite forceps, several pairs of nitrile gloves, a bag of Whirl-Pak bags, and a small, six-shooting tranquilizer gun that can stop a walrus, but is far more likely to get used against a sea otter that got up on the wrong side of the bed.
Robert Robinson, scowling at my purple, sparkly rubber boots, leads me down the metal corkscrew stairs and into the belly of the underwater beast, or, more accurately, its spine.
“This particular facility is the pioneer,” Robert Robinson shouts as the hatch clangs closed behind us. “It’s the living prototype of the likes of which provide all 48 states of the USA with the means to eat.”
He means that this facility, together with dozens like it, provides the ample, steady, and critical supply of phosphate fertilizer that we need to grow our food now that we’re past peak phosphorite.
“The most accessible, most phosphorous-rich rocks, are gone,” Robert Robinson mansplains as we clamber clanking down the stairs. “So we cannot mine for phosphorus fast enough to fertilize the crops we need to feed eight billion humans, just about as many cats and dogs, and, collectively, tens of billions of chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.”
Of course, we could have learned to recycle phosphorus from sewage sludge and effluent on a massive scale. But it lacked a certain appeal. That’s when the aquaculturists of the world cleared their collective throat. Ocean waters hold a whopping great big bunch of phosphorus in the form of dissolved phosphate, we said. And there are already these nifty things, known as phytoplankton, who’ve spent more than a billion years perfecting the extraction protocol. If we give them light, a safe place, and a steady supply of nutrient-rich seawater, they should just chug away, packing phosphate into their tiny bodies as they exponentially grow.
Robert Robinson stops us at a door.
“To reach the culturing tanks,” he says, “we must pass through the Cuttlefish Room.”
I’m blinking at him again. This man is a one-man band of disgruntled undertones.
“The road to Hell,” he sighs, bracing himself.
I shoot him a questioning glance.
“On top of feeding humanity,” Robert Robinson tells me, “we’re breeding a rare, local species cuttlefish to save it from extinction.” Then he pushes open the door and walks in. A jet of water rises up out of one of the tanks and hits him squarely in the face.
It’s unprofessional, but I laugh.
“She doesn’t like you,” I tell him.
“Really?” he says, so grateful for my expertise. He dabs at his face with a hankie, muttering, “I hate that fish.”
“It’s a mollusk.”
Robert Robinson gives me a look. I have not made his day.
I walk over to the tank and look down at her, this broody cuttlefish queen. She reddens and glares up at me, the ruffle running round her like a bed-skirt thrumming angstfully.
“She’s not happy here,” I tell Robert Robinson. “Let her go. She’s done her duty and cuttlefish life is not long. Let her jet away.”
Robert Robinson sets his jaw again. He’d rather wait a few more months then watch her die. He wants to gloat as she thrashes, panicked, in the listing circles of senescence.
“Come on,” he tells me. “Time’s a-wasting.”
We go through the far door and resume clunking down metal stairs.
“Whatever your feelings about the environmental impacts and security risks of aquaculture, you have to admit, what we’ve come up with here in the good old US of A is pretty spiffy,” says Robert Robinson, rolling out a well-rehearsed spiel. “We’ve established an army of oceanic bioreactors, each with the area of a football field and a depth of thirty meters.”
These days there are dozens of tanks at each National Oceanic Aquacultural Facility and there are dozens upon dozens of NOAFs.
“Each one of our tanks,” Robert Robinson continues, “is strung through with bright lights and air-lift mixing systems.”
We reach another metal door. Robert Robinson puts on his sunglasses, opens it, and waves me in, saying, “Ladies first.”
The light is blinding. It makes no sense down here, beneath the waves. It takes me some moments to realize we’re on a landing between two of the football field-sized culturing tanks and the water in the tanks is horrifically clear.
“Why not turn off the growth lamps?” I ask Robert Robinson, shading my eyes as I stare sadly down at the bottom of the tanks. They’re ankle deep in slime. I shudder. So much phytoplankton death. So much particulate phosphate production ground to a halt.
“Two days ago,” Robert Robinson says, “this tank was golden brown, that one was a brilliant green, and from top to bottom, both were thick as thieves.”
“A massive, unexpected crash,” I murmur.
I turn to Robert Robinson. “I think you need to begin at the beginning.”
“The beginning…” He ponders for a moment what this means. “Okay. In the beginning, we fill each tank by pumping cool, nutrient-rich water from several hundred meters below the ocean’s surface into the tank at its bottom.”
Several hundred meters is deep enough to hit nutrient pay dirt and to avoid a lot in the way of potentially fouling or contaminating organisms.
“How many exactly, more or less?” I ask.
“Meters? Two hundred.”
My eyebrows rise.
“We’re the test facility,” he tells me. “We do all the tinkering and testing. A deeper intake pipe would be more trouble than it’s worth.”
I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not the one footing the bill for the ROV.
“Next,” Robert Robinson continues, “we introduce a specific strain of phytoplankton into each tank and allow it to grow.”
Optimally, a fast-growing strain with a high phosphorus to carbon ratio and no ability at all to produce toxins.
“Meanwhile, the continuous input of cool, nutrient-rich water at the bottom of the tank continuously displaces more nutrient-exhausted water (full of phytoplankton) from the top.”
I stare into the length of one of the enormous tanks (it would make a spectacular swimming pool) and try to feel the flow in my head.
“We send the outflow from each tank,” he continues, “straight into continuously-running freeze-drying centrifuge units that spit out dense pellets of phytoplankton themselves densely packed with carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.” He smiles at me. “These pellets are perfect for eating (if you can stand the taste), for feeding to livestock (whose manure can be used to fertilize fields), or for applying directly onto fields as fertilizer.”
What he doesn’t say, because it isn’t germane to the problem at hand, is that the added bonus of growing phytoplankton to mine phosphorus from the ocean is that because phytoplankton stockpile nitrogen as well as phosphorus, we’ve been able to turn off all of our energy-guzzling ammonia production plants (except for those producing ammonia for munitions because, well, war; you never want to get caught napping).
“And then you walked in yesterday to this,” I say.
Robert Robinson nods sadly.
“No,” Robert Robinson admits. “That was a year ago. We chalked it up to some virus sweeping through, so we just cleaned everything out and started over.”
No report to Congress? No announcement to the press?
“Classified,” he says.
“So this is the second incident.”
“No.” Robert Robinson shifts uncomfortably. “The second incident came six months later. That time we assumed we hadn’t sufficiently decontaminated the tanks after the first time.”
Robert Robinson sighs.
“But now yesterday.” He stops to shake his head. “Whatever the problem is, if it spreads to other facilities…”
His face grows ashen.
So does mine.
“Something in the water,” I say.
Robert Robinson shoots me the like, wow, they sent me a genius look.
“Normally, the phytoplankton being fed directly from the intake system grow brilliantly,” he says. “Some strains hit three divisions per day. Then, boom. Everybody in every big tank is dead and sinking to the bottom. At which point we have to drain out every single big tank, bleach out every single big tank, and then grow the tanks back up into chemostat mode using stock shipped in from our nearest NOAF neighbor.”
Robert Robinson rubs his forehead. “I hope I don’t have to tell you how long that takes nor how much work it is.”
I breathe in and then breathe out deeply, loudly, and sympathetically, because I can imagine and I wouldn’t wish it on any aquaculturer, not even Robert Robinson. Attaining optimal continuous culture mode can be exhausting and elusive, even when your tank is merely 20 liters and your flow rate but drips. Spinning up one (not to mention dozens) of these 160-million-liter tanks…
I shake my head.
Robert Robinson growls, “We hadn’t even reached equilibrium in all tanks before this last crash happened.”
“Could I have a sample of some dead culture water?” I ask.
“Here? Now? Or do you want it sent to the lab?”
I indicate now. My trunks are in the lab, but I have two eyes and a nose still on me.
Robert Robinson walks over to what looks like an automated coffee machine on the wall of one tank and presses a sequence of buttons. A bottle pops down into a holder, there’s a whoosh, and the bottle begins to fill rapidly, but gently. When it’s full, Robert Robinson brings the bottle over to me.
On my best cautious toxicologist behavior, I uncap it and wave my fingers over the bottle’s narrow neck until the odor wafts up and out and reaches my nostrils.
When happy and healthy, at high population densities, the algae that had been growing in that tank smell clearly of cucumbers and freshly mown lawn. It’s one of the best smells in the world. Paddling through a thick bloom of these phytoplankton out in the wild is amazing. The essence that bursts forth from the ocean is clean, fresh, and delicious.
But what roils up into my nostrils right now is rank and, dare I say, dill-icious. I recoil and wretch (I’m so not a pickle fan), just managing to cap the bottle and hurl it down the gangway before my lungs spasm into an asthma attack.
As my airways clamp down, I make a calm mental note to add this substance to my list of known triggers, at least at insanely high concentrations. Then I’m gibbering and heaving and nothing’s working. I can’t get new air in to my lungs or old air out. As the moments tick on and on and my lips and fingers begin to tingle, I sink to my hands and knees. I’m grasping and reaching and patting down pockets, moving towards panic. Where is it? But finally, I have it. My inhaler is out, in my mouth, and depressed. A wad of vapor bolts down my throat.
Slowly, slightly, the vice loosens and at least a couple of bronchioles declench. Enough air begins trickling in for me to feel stupid down here on the floor, but not enough for me to rectify the situation. At least I manage to push myself shakily back into a seated position. I sit there and wheeze and wheeze and wheeze.
“Sorry,” says Robert Robinson, pale and looking like please don’t die (the paperwork, oh the paperwork). “I should have warned you it was foul.”
I give him a long, hard, low-oxygen stare. Trying to breathe without lungs. This is what it is like to be a fish. But, when I finally can, all I haltingly hiss out is, “Meta… cas… pases.”
“What?” Robert Robinson says, kneeling down beside me and whacking me so hard on the back I really want to ask him how he has managed not to “fall off” the rig in the middle of some dark and stormy night.
I take another hit off the inhaler and over the next minute, I slowly stop spluttering like a bagpipe bouncing down the stairs. Eventually I am able to croak, “Ever heard of apoptosis?”
Robert Robinson thinks about this for a moment then says, “Cell suicide.”
I clear my throat once or twice. “I’d be willing to wager,” (pause for a wheeze), “that someone has used the water intake pipe…”
I pause here for a round of coughing. Robert Robinson nods encouragingly to me.
“To… feed your algae… metacaspases.”
I succeed in sucking in a semi-deep breath.
“Enough of a dose,” I continue carefully, “to set off a chain reaction of cells bursting open.” My god, I sound like Donald Duck. “This releases more metacaspases. And so on. Until the entire population knows it’s time to die.”
Robert Robinson whistles.
“How much would be enough to clear a tank? To clear all the tanks, in fact?” He sits back on his heels. “Is something like that even possible?”
I clear my throat again. “I’d have to do the modeling to say what the minimum critical dose would be for your dilution rate and cell density.”
Robert Robinson helps me to my feet.
“Who would do a thing like that?” he asks, rubbing one hand over the shiny, freckled crown of his head. “And how?” I shrug. How should I know? I’m just here on a house call. He’s the one who works here. He’s the big wig director of the big wig facility.
Robert Robinson brings me down to the lounge because even he can see I need some time to recover.
The lounge is cheerful and bright. There is a poolside bar bedecked in long strands of dried grass, like this is Hawaii or something and, yes, there is also a pool. Not a pool pool, but a moon pool through which you can deploy divers to tend to the outsides of the tanks or a small ROV for deeper work, such as on the intake pipe. Arranged around the moon pool at the center of the lounge are chairs, tables, and even sun loungers.
“Full spectrum light, as in including IR and UV,” Robert Robinson explains, pointing to the lamps overhead. “Quote-unquote sunbathing is more effective and better for the mental health than popping vitamin D.”
“Stints are that long?”
He nods sadly.
I grin. No wonder he’s such a funky chicken.
I flop down on one of the algal-derived plastic chairs and take the coffee Robert Robinson brings me from what is this time a genuine automated coffee dispenser.
I sink all the way back and admit he is right. The heat from the lamps is soothing and wonderful. If I worked here, I’d be down here all the time, lolling about like a lizard.
At this point, a sea lion bursts arp-arping in through the moon pool. I hit the ceiling, my chair hits the deck, and my coffee hits the wall (but luckily for Robert Robinson, not Robert Robinson).
Heart thumping, I goggle at the intruder. The residual wheeze, at least, has been vanquished by the spike in epinephrine.
The sea lion is a female. She shakes herself off and slap, slap, slaps her fore flippers on the now very wet hauling-out platform.
“Hey!” beams Robert Robinson as if looking at a long-lost love. “I haven’t seen you in while. Where have you been?”
The sea lion arp-arps again, looking coy.
I frown. Something is off. But I avoid marine mammals like the plague, because, goddammit, I’m a scientist not a dolphin-swimmer, thus I’m no expert on vocalizations. So I can’t get my finger on it. All I can say is that her bark, while not wrong, isn’t right either.
Robert Robinson gets up and bee-lines for the fridge behind the bar. Out comes a bucket filled with ice and fish.
The sea lion barks more loudly now, but still with that strange intonation. The pitch is too deep, I decide, and the vowel sound is a touch too long.
The sea lion stands up on her fore flippers, arches her body up over her head, and, with her hind flippers, waves Robert Robinson a dainty hello.
Robert Robinson laughs, his whole face shining, and tosses the sea lion several fish. She catches each one, wolfs it down, then looks up brightly, wanting more.
“Watch this,” Robert Robinson calls to me. “I’ve got her trained.”
He sits himself down on a chair next to the bar and puts the bucket of fish on the table beside him. He holds forth his cheek. “Kiss, kiss?” he beckons.
The sea lion looks at him, then she looks at me, almost rolling her eyes, and then she looks back at him.
She begins ambling, dripping, over.
“Arp-arp!” she barks and something clicks inside my head.
I jump up, whirl, and draw my gun in one, if I don’t say so myself, stunning motion. Just as the sea lion is giving Robert Robinson’s cheek a big, wet smackeroo, I get her with a dart right behind one of her cute little ears.
First, she turns, shocked. Then she staggers. Then she gives a furtive glance towards the moon pool, her only avenue of escape. I put myself between her and it, keeping the tranquilizer gun trained on her the whole time.
“Don’t even think about it,” I tell her. “I loaded fast-acting tranquilizer this morning. You’ll drown.”
The sea lion looks at me now blearily. She sighs out through her nostrils then totters over, asleep, onto the ground.
Robert Robinson is frozen and his eyes are the size of saucers. You know, UFOs.
“Russian agent,” I say, putting the gun away. “Didn’t you catch the accent?”
Robert Robinson just looks at me like what did you do to my friend?
I smile at the poor, fish-throwing sucker. “She doesn’t care about you. She’s here for the intake pipe.”
Robert Robinson stares, failing to process this.
“She’s your saboteur,” I spell out. “She and probably several of her friends have been delivering the metacaspases.”
Robert Robinson blinks blankly.
“Don’t take the time to get your head around it!” I bark. “Call in your animal control officers. Get the sea lion into the brig. That tranquilizer only lasts so long. Meanwhile, I’ve got to call the Department of Maritime Security. They need to get on this before it goes any further.”
“What?” Robert Robinson says.
“Your NOAF is not just a testing ground for us, it’s a testing ground for the enemy. Next up, perhaps, simultaneous sabotage of the entire suite of NOAFs.”
This is what finally gets Robert Robinson up and acting like the director of the oldest and most esteemed phosphate extraction facility in the nation (if not the world).
I stare down at the sleeping sea lion. Snoring softly like that, she seems like such a sweet thing.
When I get home, some days later, it is the wee hours and my literature-loving librarian Fred is snoring like an elephant seal.
I give him a nudge.
“You’re back!” he mumbles. “Did you save the world?”
“Only the USA,” I tell him. “Although Maritime Security needed some convincing to do more than laugh.”
“Oh, Poopsie,” Fred says, thick with sleep. “I’m sorry. Did someone think you were bonkers again? I know you hate it when they don’t take you seriously.”
Actually, to their credit, despite laughing at me, the Maritime Security people injected a transmitter into the sea lion before letting her go. And go she went, straight home to a marine animal rehabilitation facility along the coast. It was one run by a very private charity with what turned out to be very dubious paperwork. It was raided posthaste.
What Maritime Security found there was a below-ground storehouse stocked with questionable compounds. There were boatloads of the phytoplankton-popping metacaspases that I’m sure will turn out to be the same type used to kill the NOAF tanks. But there were also multiple half-ton canisters of domoic acid, saxitoxin, anatoxins, and microcystins.
The laughter stopped there.
Never mind the metacaspases, feed any of those algae-produced toxins into facilities growing fish, shellfish, or lobster for human consumption and you could sicken, permanently damage, and even kill hundreds to thousands of people.
Maritime Security also found enclosure after enclosure filled with sea otters, sea lions, and dolphins that, when drilled, displayed the delivery skills of Navy Seals’ seals.
And eventually they found the garlands of capsules, too, with their handy central bar that could be gripped in the mouth of a sea lion. Having, by that point, done the modeling, I explained to them that several of these garlands stuck on to the intake grill of a NOAF could release enough metacaspases to start the chain reaction of phytoplankton death in its tanks. Then, when spent, the physical remnants of the garland would drop off the grill, sink, and be swept away by the currents and swallowed up by the sea and no one would ever be any the wiser.
We agreed: all in all, audacious. And hilarious that Robert Robinson had fallen for the femme fatale. Too bad I didn’t know him well enough (or like him well enough) to rag on him about it for the entire next decade or two.
“All’s well that ends well?” Fred asks me as he drifts back to sleep.
“One Russian sabotage ring taken down,” I confirm, although undoubtedly dozens remain. At least one, presumably, for each NOAF.
“Hoorah, USA,” he sighs.
The Department of Maritime Security would be busy for a while, figuring out how to simultaneously and continuously defend hundreds of intake pipes situated two hundred to six hundred meters below the ocean’s surface at numerous, widespread localities normally many miles offshore.
If I had money to bet, I’d put it with them going for exclusion zones, in the form of concentric cages, each with a finer mesh, set around each intake opening like a giant onion. That way nothing big could swim up close enough to deliver a large, highly concentrated dose of anything.
Of course, someone (or something, such as, say, an octopus or other fiendishly clever mollusk) could still bore into the hundreds of meters of intake pipe above and inject something bad. That’s another possibility the Maritime folks will need to consider (and probably, offensively at least, already have).
I yawn and stretch my arms up into the air. But not me. I came, I saw, I shot the sea lion (with a tranquilizer gun). My job there was done.