ESCAPE TO PHOBOS
In the year 2205, Earth has been ravaged daily by earthquakes and devastating weather conditions, leaving nearly 60% of the planet's surface in a severe drought. Global warming and Coronal Mass Ejections from the sun have reached critical levels and scientists believe that the Earth is facing cataclysmic conditions.
Scientists have been tasked with finding a way to overcome these drastic food shortages for the sake of humanities survival. Lirren Lamaar, an agricultural scientist, believes she has the solution with her creation of genetic mutant seeds that will flourish in drought conditions. But living in California, ground zero to the devastating earthquakes, any moment could be her last.
Lirren desperately wants to believe that the Earth can be saved, but finds herself torn in a world less interested in saving plant life in favor of a synthetic vitamin. She warns her colleagues against the synthetics, but her fierce individualism and deep moral courage causes others to view her as a threat, and with life hanging in the balance, Lirren is in for far more than she ever imagined.
Lirren's savant genius teenage son, Logan, also becomes a target as others seek to exploit his research and ideas. Lirren struggles to uncover the truth about what is going on and to protect her son.
Just when Lirren sees no way out, she finds an ally in Xanders Pierson, the Director of Operations and projects for a nearby commercial space flight company. With conspiracies and plots against Lirren mounting, is humanities survival, and that of Lirren and her son, not on Earth, but in the stars?
(ARS) Agriculture Research Center, DomePlex
Thursday October, 4th, 2205
He glides down a dark quiet hallway. Everyone is gone. He enters the lab and a light goes on in the room. It is not wise to attempt an exchange too soon. He was carefully preserving the contents until the last possible moment. It would be tomorrow. He would be a rich man soon. He had the seat now.
The senior botanist traversed through several long stark hallways. Using his authority, it wouldn’t take him long to sneak into a lab and check on a secret batch of transgenic drought tolerant seeds in a cold storage laboratory. He paused when he reached the secured lab door.
“Identify,” a voice requested.
“Dr. Lars Draven,” he said clearly.
He stood impatiently as the biometric security system beeped and whirred identifying several physical signatures including his facial features, iris, hand geometry, ear shape, body odor, weight, height, and voice. The door whisked opened and he slipped inside unseen. He was alone. The mood around the California agriculture research center was chaotic, as they all rushed away dealing with the earthquakes and meetings, which he had counted on. He purposely walked past several long white-lighted shelves neatly filled with stacks of bins. Inside this particular lab, they carefully stored anything from plant DNA, orthodox seeds, or unorthodox recalcitrant seeds, types which didn’t resist drying or freezing for very long. He started walking through the shelves headed for the hidden package in a cyro tank along the back of the room. Each one held thousands of carefully packaged and marked cold storage Genetic Mutation seeds or GM’s.
“Eeny meeny miny moe, catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, make him pay,” he whispered as he slipped between the high shelves eye-balling the countless packages in the lab. He walked toward the tank he was looking for and stopped directly in front of it. His delicate friendship with his ex-girlfriends kid genius, Logan, had paid off and the engineered hybrids he was about to steal would make him rich. It had been slow in developing, but the day was finally here. He didn’t check the number on the side. He knew where it was by heart. “70 million credits every God damned day,” he finished under his breath. He took a quick look around and then pulled on a pair of thick protective gloves unlocking a small cyro tank marked thirteen. A quiet whisking sound emitted and a cloud of cold liquid nitrogen gas hit the air as he pulled out a small twelve-inch clear envelope compartmentalized with thousands of the tiny seeds. He glanced carefully at the package.
“Phase three, beautiful,” he said. He slid it back carefully into the cryo-preservation container. He turned right and studied the seed cold storage tank one more time. Originally intended as the answer for Earth’s devastating drought conditions, the valuable hybrids called Evolution would also grow and survive well on Mars, and as fate would have it, Mars was paying well. Unfortunately, his ex girlfriend — Lirren Lamaar, another well-known botanist, had begun to suspect he was exploiting her son’s research. Now he found himself warily avoiding the two “Hero’s for the Planet” every time he came to work. Hero’s for the Planet were part of the new breed of people who dedicated themselves to saving Earth, inventing ways to fight off all the impending climate disasters. He shook his head, a waste of time.
As he moved toward the exit he thought again of the irony of the situation. Lirren’s savant son Logan unwittingly helped him create his unauthorized project so even if they figured out what he was doing, they would think twice about threatening him with misconduct. The entire time her son helped invent the mutants for Earth, he had other things in mind. Not only were the GM’s going to Mars instead of Earth, he was leaving Earth along with the seeds in less than a week. It was hard to believe he was getting off this wasteland in a few days and going to Mars, but Evolution was his ticket, more valuable per ounce than pure refined gold. The Russians would pay him well for his efforts, but the best part of the agreement in his mind was the added bonus trip on their new ship, the Kosmos X5.
He smiled. Even on Mars he would follow the same simple rules of survival that had gotten him this far; Rule, number one, he learned from his sister, along with corporate America, “Always be prepared to stretch the truth when questioned.” Rule number two, from his favorite, yet ill-fated brother taught him about exit strategy, “Only Piss on a Big Guy when he has his back turned and your transit is running! And then there was, of course, rule number three, keep your mouth shut, a no-brainer. Rule number four was something that he figured out early on for himself, with no one to teach him. Don’t look too smart. He always had to work on that since he was young, because even though most people weren’t very smart at all, they had enough intelligence to recognize it in him, or anyone else for that matter, he thought smugly.
Satisfied everything was set, he walked back towards the lab door exit glancing around anxiously. A tiny palm recognition device alerted him to a call.
“Max,” said Lars.
“Don’t use my name,” the man replied.
“Max, Max, Max — we got Max here. No one cares. It’s a bunch of plants,” Lars said still looking around.
The man ignored him and continued. “On delivery tomorrow, seventy million for every viable species you have, including the poppies.
“I’ve got your poppies alright, Lars said stopping at the door. He faked a deep intake of breath and exhaled.
“Papaver somniferum, good for space jitters. I got that and anything else you wanna smoke. Just remember these plants are for Mars only, a genetic stock for specific focus plants. You’ll need me up there for supervision and development or you’ll stop having such a good time out there.”
“We need you there by Saturday night at seven o’clock in Lompoc, Spaceport Park. From there you know the plan.”
“Don’t worry I’ll be on time. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Excellent. Just curious Mr. Lars, how you plan on getting the package through security?”
“We’re going to have a sudden power supply problem here tomorrow. I’ve got a fifteen minute window. Fifteen minutes and your little colony on Mars catches up on ten years of research,” Lars said.
“See you soon. End.”
Friday October, 5th, 2205
Life is half spent before we know what it is.
In her dream everything was shaking. She felt her hair matted down under a strange helmet. Where was she? She didn’t know. A crackling voice spoke over an intercom. “T-minus 25 seconds and counting, guidance is internal. We have a go from the main engine.” Wait! Her teenage son Logan was on her left. His eyes looked forward, his pale face remote and unaware she was sitting at his side. “Starting ignition,” a voice continued, then a deep shaking split her vision into a million pieces. She clawed, her fingers wrapping around arm grips on her seat but she needed his attention. She cried out, “Logan!” but her voice drowned out in the intensified roaring and shuddering around them. She reached for him, but she couldn’t move. She was pinned to her seat. For an instant, she realized they were on a space-ship and panic started driving her heart against her chest. She was suddenly terrified of leaving Earth. She locked her eyes on Logan but darkness closed in. Was this a dream or real? Who would take care of the garden domes? “Logan! Logan! Logan!” she screamed. It was useless over the thundering noise of the spaceship leaving the atmosphere. Lirren heard a familiar voice speaking through the darkness, “warning, warning!”
Lirren was suddenly jolted awake from her shaking bed. Confused by her vivid dream that had seemed so real, the 36-year-old scientist sat up, and realized with horror the whole room was shaking. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment, but at this point, she knew the terrifying low rumble was another earthquake and no dream. Her homes warning continued sounding off, its smooth female voice repeating — “Warning! Warning! Tremor alert. Tremor alert.” She sat straight up and watched as her Audobon clattered wildly against the wall. In a suspended moment, it crashed down over a console and bounced onto her bedroom floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. “Damn it,” she said angrily ripping the covers off her legs. She could hear transit sirens outside blasting off their warning adding to her panic, then blackness. The lights vanished.
“Logan!” she shouted.
She jumped up to cross the trembling room, but fell over sideways stopping herself with her hands. She cursed as some of the broken glass stabbed her palms.
“It’s another one,” Logan’s muffled voice sounded from down the hall.
“Don’t panic!” She moved down the hall toward his doorway, and the terrifying low thunder subsided. Lirren paused in that moment, her eyes trying to penetrate the dusky light. With a light step, she walked over to her lanky sixteen-year-old son and sank down next to him, inspecting her bleeding hands. She spotted one of Logan’s T-shirts on the floor, quickly grabbed it and pressed the fabric into her palms.
“I’m okay,” he breathed. “Quake, another small one, January tenth, four point zero. February fifteenth, six point... six point four. February twenty-fourth, six point two,” he paused. “March eighth, seven point two. March twenty-fifth, six point... six point five. April seventh, three point two. May tenth, four point... four point three. June sixteenth, two point three. October fifth,” Logan trailed off whispering more numbers. He didn’t know this morning’s Richter scale number. Lirren sat keeping her gaze expressionless and calm. At times like this, he used numbers as a way to ease his nerves, almost unconsciously.
“Logan,” she said trying to keep her voice calm, “I don’t think there was an earthquake on March eighth, that was your birthday.”
“I was referring to March 8th, two thousand sixteen, nine years ago, and the subsequent years,” he mumbled.
By the time he was three, he started reciting dates and mathematical equations to calm himself as a sort of stress mechanism and this definitely qualified as a stressful day already.
Logan was hard-wired a little differently with unique skills in math, but to his mother it had simply become the natural order of things.
“Mom,” he grabbed her hands. He was coming out of his trance, “you’re bleeding.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Sorry about your shirt,” she apologized.
Logan took the cotton shirt and pulled as hard as he could along the seams. It pulled apart and he gave her three long narrow strips of cloth. She took the pieces and tied them tightly around her hands.
“Sorry about your hands,” he said contradictorily. He looked at her balled up bandaged hands, and began standing-up but Lirren pinched his arm. “Logan stay here, there might be an aftershock,” she warned. Logan slid back down unhappily.
“Aftershock?” he hunched over wrapping his arms around his legs tightly and pushed his face forward into his knees.
“Maybe not,” Lirren said hopefully, trying not to look too worried. Logan nodded dutifully but given the situation, Logan could regress into numbers again for hours. She wrapped her arm around his back and rested her head on his shoulder to ease his nerves. As they waited together, she tried recalling her dream but some of the details were slipping away. She closed her eyes and tried to remember. She and Logan had been on a space ship, definitely a spaceship, maybe one of XWing’s ship… and they were leaving Earth… maybe to Mars, she concentrated hard trying to recall. She heard the radio static voice counting down again in the dark, feeling trapped as gravity pulled her down, with some of the lights and sounds becoming clearer now. Lirren lifted her head away from Logan’s shoulder. She had been screaming in fear, which had awoken her… or had that been the earthquake? It was all so confusing but something about it seemed so real. Lirren shook herself mentally. The idea of leaving Earth was absurd. Although she and Xanders, her close friend, were heavily involved with a remarkable project that sent important USDA supplies to the small US base on Mars, the idea of going there would be nearly impossible. She knew how passionate Xanders was about the project, but the majority of XWing’s flights were payloads, plus the price of going was astronomical unless XWing or someone else covered the cost – not to mention the undertaking it would take to live there. The thing that nagged the back of her mind though was how real the dream was, and the last time she talked to Xanders it seemed like he was hinting at the idea. Going to Mars was both difficult and dangerous, and considering the selection process and the precautions… no… it’s preposterous… but yet… yet she felt a slight sense of foreboding. Lirren turned her head and listened to the silence around them. Maybe, she thought, if there was an aftershock it happened miles away from here. She stood up slowly gripping the doorway.
“Jane?” she asked. “Jane, lights on,” she commanded, but nothing happened. Their energy efficient house — JANE had a central computer, equipped with a mind and a nervous system almost like a person. Jane connected them to every appliance and electronic device inside and out, making them practically helpless without her.
“Jane?” Again, silence, but Lirren waited. “Hello, Jane?” Maybe the backup system was damaged in the tremor?
“I’m going to switch on the solar backup Logan,” she said. Logan pulled his face away from his knees and looked up expectantly.
She strained her eyes in the dim hallway and moved cautiously toward a small white box on the opposite wall. She opened it’s slim white cover and pressed a small switch inside.
Suddenly Jane came to life with her synthesized female voice, “Power is activated.” A second later, light filled the hallway and familiar beeping sounds filled the air.
Lirren let out a small breath and leaned back, thankful the back-up power worked, “Good.”
Logan pulled himself up to watch as she turned and walked toward the living room. Still shaken, he shadowed her every move, but eventually he relaxed, sitting down, while Lirren surveyed the entire house for any damage. Everything was fine of course, she thought looking around, except two priceless wine glasses. She stupidly left them out last night after showing them off to her neighbor Alix. Alix lived just a block behind her on a sloping hillside, her rooftop peeking out from the treetops just behind Lirren’s trendy home off Pier Avenue, Santa Monica. She stepped forward and examined the damage closer. They were so old the broken glass had practically turned into a fine powder. She picked up a broken stem — the only piece that was still intact. She knew Alix had been sufficiently impressed, while they used them to share a glass of red wine together.
“Pity,” she said sadly. Another family heirloom gone. The Cabernet was from a small prestigious vineyard in Napa Valley, her reward for helping the owner protect his harvest. The magnetosphere dome over his vineyard was typical, used now to help save the Earth’s dwindling food supply.
She turned her face from Logan to hide her tears. The earthquakes were a dangerous sign. Lirren was a leading botanist dedicated to saving the food supply but the thought of a vanishing planet frightened her. Thousands of animals and plants were disappearing and the Earth’s eco-system was facing permanent collapse. Like southern California, the world was reduced to a few patches of greenery, scrubland, and dry riverbeds from intense heat and radiation damage. Spacecraft were busy reconnecting weak points in the Earth’s magnetic shield to combat the situation, but so far, they weren’t making a significant difference.
A part of her refused to be defeated and shook away the negative images, trying like hell to feel grateful they were still in one piece. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” she said softly.
“What does that mean, ashes to ashes?” Logan was listening.
“Nothing, just something Grandma says,” she turned away irritably, pushing a button. Her hands were killing her, and she was still half naked in her undergarments. Two small round vacuums suddenly detached themselves from a pocket, near the large round sofa making small whirring noises. One made its way to the bedroom, while the other hovered over the broken glass in the living room, clearing away the mess. As they cleaned, Logan remained watchful, picking up a couple of pillows compulsively and returning them to the sofa. Lirren stepped up the single stair from the round sunken living space over smooth glossy floors down a hallway to her steam room. Carefully unwrapping her bandages, she threw the fabric into its recycler bin and ran a trickle of warm water over her hands. She winced and grabbed some tweezers from a cabinet.
“I saw a message that your meeting is still on for this morning,” she called out. “They’re giving us your transition stuff, an exit survey, and I think that guy from Amos might call too,” she paused still standing in the doorway. “Max,” she raised her voice. She closed the door and unwrapped her hands, plucking out the glass.
“I’m sure,” Logan said his muffled voice calling back. Lirren glanced up quizzically at his comment. He switched subjects purposely, keeping his tone neutral. “There’s seven more messages. Jayla’s on her way with Aunt Lei. And Xanders is trying to get through.”
Satisfied the glass was out, she carefully placed delicate pieces of NuSkin bandages over the cuts that would miraculously heal her palms in about one day. She held her hands open and peered at them closely, thinking. At the beginning of the twenty third century, over-population had exhausted the world’s food resources. After she finished her PhD in Agricultural Engineering, she had hoped to change the downward spiral, but the stress of living here had slowed her down — that and a divorce. On the plus side her skills were in demand, and the demand far exceeded the supply, which had been a good thing as far as money was concerned, but she never did it for the money. Her true motivation was her simple love of nature and the desire to help feed the worlds growing population.
Wanting to help combat the diminishing food supply was also the reason she helped invent a new type of magnetosphere, a dipole-like magnetic field built to protect farms — and they worked well. The hybrid technology originally developed for space travel could also shield trees, wildlife, and crops from the hazards of heat and radiation. In fact, the first shield was still hovering over a large cranberry marsh in Wood County, Wisconsin, saving it from permanent extinction. After she and her colleagues tested their prototype at West Madison’s Ag research station proving it could work, they became the recipients for several awards including World Food Prize for the breakthrough invention. Soon after she left her home in Madison to accept a prestigious two-year appointment through the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service — ARS — in Riverside California. The USDA helped implement the technology, and ARS subsequently built several of the protective magnetic domes over their own location, making it a research facility and conservatory now. Nicknamed the ARS DomePlex now, it was rather famous, and there were many special tours to give the public an up-close look.
Lirren stood up aware of the time, grabbed a long thin robe from her bedroom, and returned through the hallway. Although her inventions were helping, they weren’t infallible to natural disasters. Whenever an earthquake hit, the delicate plasma accelerators could be interrupted, or completely destroyed. Repairs would be eminent, and damage reports would flow in around the country every time there was a tremor, flood, or other severe weather anomaly.
She walked by Logan into the kitchen glancing at his expansive three-dimensional game hovering in the center of the floor. She leaned slightly over their main computer console and switched it over to a news feed to see if there was more information about the earthquake. She found a station and watched the usual FEMA press conference about the morning’s incident. Cameras were flashing and tiny Micro Air Vehicles were hovering a few feet above, practically swarming the scene, but Lirren’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. It looked as if a group of FEMA public affairs employees were grilling the FEMA representatives again. Xanders told her he knew real reporters were only notified a few minutes in advance now, calling into a conference “listen-only” line, where asking questions was impossible. She turned it off and sat down at her dining table looking absent-mindedly at her hands again. Her inventions were also the reason she met her new boyfriend, Xanders. About two years ago a famous spaceflight company named XWing negotiated a contract to get her delicate magnetosphere equipment along with other USDA proprietary payloads to Mars. Paradoxically, the very same technology that brought people, plants, microbes, and machines into self-contained environments on Earth, was also something the Mars Colony could use. The newly formed joint venture resulted in an operation between the USDA’s DomePlex at Riverside California with neighboring XWing in Hawthorne California. Since Xanders was XWing’s chief technology officer in charge of the project, they wound up pitted together, in a key mission to stockpile the supplies and parts safely on Mars. A smile crossed her face as she thought about the first day they met, but she looked up glancing at the time again. Messages were still blinking over the console in front of her, floating around as small three-dimensional holograms. One of them was blinking red, including the incoming call from Xanders. The floating hologram was an avatar of his face.
Jane spoke, “Xanders calling.”
She cut off Jane anxiously, “connect with visual.”
The red blinking avatar turned green and the computer-generated image of his head began speaking to her with the time stamped underneath — 8:04 a.m. Friday October 5th, 2205.
Lirren sat back and answered from her chair, “hi Xanders.”
“Are you guys okay?” he asked. She knew Xanders could see her sitting in her robe, with the visual connection.
“We’re fine, but not my Audubon,” she said with a flat tone. She continued to sit with her hands gently folded on her legs and Logan sat playing his game a few feet behind her on the flow seat.
“Sorry about the Audobon.” Xanders was studying Lirren. The theory that opposites attract could be somewhat accurate in their case. Physically speaking they were opposites, his light features in comparison to Lirren’s dark hair and brown eyes, but they weren’t truly opposites. Maybe more like quantum entangled, with his heart definitely entangled, he thought.
“Well, the print actually survived, just the glass and frame broke,” she conceded. “The power went out for a minute, so Jane’s on solar backup, but that’s all, thank the stars.”
“I guess Santa Monica shook a little harder because the epicenter was around Upland. That’s only forty miles east of you. Only a 2.8 though. They’re claiming those channels they dug at the fault lines are working. The new injection wells did their job, it could have been a lot worse.”
Lirren sat for a minute playing with the bandages on her palms.
“Well, whatever they are, it’s practically becoming a breakfast routine around here.”
Xanders smiled, making a small noise in the back of his throat, somewhere between a chuckle and a cough at her comment. Obviously, she hadn’t lost her sense of humor, telling him she was perfectly all right. Lirren glanced away from his avatar and observed a dozen blinking hologram messages beneath Xanders but ignored the incoming calls for a moment. “Xanders, listen, we’re fine. I need to end. Jayla was headed here this morning, plus we have a meeting.”
“She’s just visiting,” Lirren said.
Xanders wasn’t buying it. “I know she likes to visit but it’s too risky right now. XWing already called me and we’ll be operating virtually today except for the hanger’s operations. This kind of tremor sets us back for—” suddenly he heard Lirren saying “end call” and the message dropped. His voice trailed on “weeks.” He sighed, hung up, and decided to let it go for now. He knew Lirren well and accepted her nuances. The increasing progression of earthquakes had him very worried though. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead for a moment. Time was running out. A few months ago he carefully hatched an escape plan for all of them to Mars on an XWing ship named Demetrius. It was leaving in less than two weeks, and he had waited too long to tell her.
Nearly a half-mile long, the Demetrius was their latest ship. It was specifically built for transporting food sustaining crops, fertilizers, and seeds for Mars. She wasn’t geared to land on Mars, but could orbit, transporting people and precious cargo using a variety of shuttles, runners, landers, and rovers — the specialized transportation equipment already loaded inside. He had watched and waited, carefully weighing their options. He was going to tell her. He knew in his heart, today was the day.
He had taken a mental note of Lirren studying her hands during the call and hoped she hadn’t hurt herself badly. He sighed, knowing he would see her soon, and continued working.
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