Behind the tractor, a herring-bone of peaty water mirrored the slate-coloured sky. Drizzle muted the rich, subtle colours of the bog, pink rosemary, emerald-leafed dwarf-birch and feathery red sun-dews, into a greenish-grey. Droplets crept in at the eyes and nostrils, and it was hard to distinguish what fell from the sky from the miasma rising from the ground, as both moved toward an equally miserable saturation. Dispiriting as it was, Vadim’s ditching crew had to complete their work that afternoon or risk pushing the construction of the housing units into the dicey first months of winter.
He poked the base of some reeds with a long pole and, when it seemed solid, gingerly transferred his weight. Crossing a bog by foot took a sharp mind, but Vadim’s was distracted. He didn’t think anyone had noticed that Pelageya hadn’t been to work that week. Her fibromyalgia made her take a lot of sick days. But he knew the neighbours must have heard them fighting. You couldn’t get the privacy for a proper discussion with these cardboard walls—just one of the indignities poverty had forced upon them.
A soft patch nearly pulled his pole from his hands, and he clutched the muddy grip, trying to get ahold of himself. He was ninety percent certain no one had noticed Pelageya’s absence. He was fairly sure he still had time.
Max, the new hire from Novosibirsk, stood on the tractor’s fender to flirt with the driver. Vadim pictured his parents’ reaction to these new workers; his mother, still sick from the bombs that had salted the upper atmosphere with radioactive metal, being told that it was treasonous to ask for paid overtime or healthcare in this new economic war, that more sacrifices were required to undercut the cheap minerals from the new ocean-floor colonies. It was easy, in the end, to kill off the memory-keepers; and kids like Max thought it just grand that a company came in to plant a timber plantation one year and build a hydroelectric dam the next, doling out beer money to their employees while the landscape grew littered with industrial failures and Vadim’s parents’ friends rotted in hospitals or prisons or cemeteries.
The tractor had been churning forward for three sodden hours when a shock through the blade made Max tumble off his perch and the driver’s hard-hat slam against the roof of the cab. She started to jam her boot on the foot-throttle, but Vadim shouted:
“Don’t force it! You’ll break the draw-bar.”
There was much delicate manipulation of levers while Vadim hop-jumped across, grabbing a dwarf birch when a misstep nearly pitched him into a quivering green patch. The tractor edged backward, gouging clumps of sphagnum from the ditch, and Vadim and Max stooped to peer under the hitch into the muddy water.
“Tree branches,” Vadim said. “Shit.”
Of all the things the bog sucked down, including boots, tools, and unwary animals, tree branches were the most troublesome. These ones were nearly logs, exactly the right size to wedge between the plough’s stay-strap and stabilizer arm. The driver, craning in her seat, was directed to back up completely so Vadim and Max could pull them out of the thick peat. Some were held so tightly that Vadim’s efforts made him sink to the top of his hip-waders.
A waft of rotten eggs bubbled from the muck. Comedians and demagogues linked that sulfurous smell with the hated deep-sea colonists huddling around their hydrothermal vents, sang the praises of fresh air and the liberty-loving terrestrial dwellers.
The smell of freedom, Vadim thought bitterly as he yanked at the stay-strap. They would have to rig some tackle to get these all out.
As Max pried up a clump of mud, something about its texture made him pause and squeeze it. A pale streak appeared under the black sphagnum. With a convulsive spasm, Max threw it violently away from him.
“What’s wrong?” Vadim asked, imagining worms or centipedes—imagining how he would mock Max for this squeamishness later, when they were sitting dry and warm in the bar. But his stomach was sinking. It was the same dizzy premonition he’d felt when he came home to see Pelageya at the kitchen table, empty glass in her fist, eyes glittering. The knowledge that life as you know it is over.
“It’s a hand,” Max said, horror in his voice. “A severed hand.”
The wind boomed through the branches of the artificial grove, an oceanic roar that could be heard dimly inside the labs and conference rooms. It creaked in the elevators that carried the humans up with their coffee mugs and key-lanyards, and flattened their clothes around their bodies as they crossed the plank bridges between the buildings of the Institute. On autumn days, it tore down cascades of leaves and, by pure mechanical pressure, forced surprised gasps of laughter from the lab techs’ lungs.
Ten kilometers further up, this undisciplined tumbling sharpened into narrower rivers of air, then thinned away, shading past shimmering noctilucent clouds and auroral draperies, into that nearer blackness where the abandoned orbital colonies kept their blinking vigil.
It was an architecture of air, unknown to most humans, whose wars hardly stirred its soupy footwell, but it was even farther out-of-scale to an individual nitrogen molecule that drifted through its lofty chambers. Eleven kilometers up the molecule sailed, as far from the Institute’s tree-platforms as those buildings were from the steel-alloy vaults of the deep-sea habitats. The nitrogen meandered, anonymous, Brownian, through the emptier space honeycombing the space called air. But it wasn’t lonely in its solitude. It had been born twinned, two indistinguishable atoms revolving in perfect symmetry.
A cosmic ray barrelled through the stratosphere. By the peculiar custom of the subatomic world, it wasn’t just a ray but also the stripped ghost of a hydrogen nucleus, fired across the universe from a mythical birthplace for which scientists had searched three hundred years in vain. It passed within a whisker of hitting the nitrogen, instead tearing a nearby oxygen into shards of jagged, chemically ravenous ozone. The collision released a shower of neutrons and electrons, through which the nitrogen skated, charmed, like a songbird dodging raindrops. But Fate, which along with doomed lovers and empires, counts ten quadrillion vigintillion molecules as its playthings, laid its finger upon this one. One of the neutrons struck the nitrogen squarely, knocking it several angstroms to the side, and knocking out, like a loose tooth, a single proton. This event transformed its identity instantly and profoundly.
A nitrogen atom ceased to exist, sundered from its yoke-mate like a righteous soul at the Rapture. In its place, a carbon atom that had never existed before continued on an identical trajectory. But a new energy simmered in the atom’s core, as if it were troubled by dim memories of a forgotten life.
The spell was temporary. The enchantress had left a loophole. One day, it would spit out an electron and an anti-neutrino, as the scullery-maid in a fairy-tale spits out coins and rubies, and regain its proper form. It would happen, as likely as not, sometime in the next 5,730 years, a number as immutable as the Law of Primes.
But not yet. The carbon (carbon-fourteen, the molecule-metronome, the magician’s clock) was tumbling in a direction that corresponded to what entities subjected to gravity call down. Down toward the earth, spined with branches of mountains and rivers, toward living oceans and jewel-like algae, their membranes crammed with green. Toward photosynthesis, ant colonies, summer markets heaped with produce, political rallies rippling with flags, and blue waves crawling with tankers—toward the great, heterogenous mass of humankind.
The carbon met an oxygen, and the two atoms were sucked into each other with an infinitesimal, magnetic click.
It was carbon dioxide. It was descending.
Attached, pleased find a copy of my short story, “Why Is This Summer So Hot?” (2,389 words) which I hope you will consider for publication on the Metapsychosis website.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.