“I apologize,” Professor Plotnik said, a compact man with thinning hair and patience. “You’re not an imbecile but naive.”
Jane Birk bit her lip and clutched her tablet to her chest. The professor might fire her for insubordination. She couldn’t imagine life outside the Clusterings Institute and never completing her research. With her thesis two and a half years overdue, Birk knew she’d crossed the line, again.
The professor’s expression softened, “I admire your enthusiasm, but your fears are misplaced. Geomagnetic polarity isn’t your field. Stick to the parameters of your chosen discipline, mammal extinction.” He sunk his hands in his armpits and returned his attention to the monitors cluttering his desk, one for each of his numerous hobbies. “By the time you finish your thesis, if you ever do, how many more of our furry friends will have disappeared?”
Temporarily defeated, Birk retreated to the Tranquilo Cafeteria, the oldest one on level four where the surly staff, all Rehabbers, ignored the customers. She’d be lucky to find anything edible. The Rehabbers, like spiteful kids, loved to sabotage the food. Did she believe the rumors?
Dirt in the coffee, crap in the cakes, and who knew what was in the slime pooling around the back of the dispenser? One day soon, maintenance would rip the place apart, but until then it served as a quiet refuge from the sanitized hegemony of 2265.
Birk swiped her credit band, and the dispenser spat a unit of lukewarm coffee into a plastic tumbler. She took it with her to a bench by the mud splattered window. Did they ever clean them? Was the area off limits to the hygiene bots?
Outside, laser commercials beamed across the sky advertising Astromine’s latest productivity statistics. Their commercial jingled through the sound system, “Making the world better by several chemical elements at a time.”
The controversial group of companies, nicknamed PORRIP, had imported another batch of asteroids to mine for platinum, osmium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, and palladium. Collectively, they employed more people than the health service. Their call centers alone created millions of minimum wages jobs all over the world. As far as governments were concerned, Astromine could do no wrong.
However, Birk knew she was right. The European Space Agency’s latest report stated that the Earth’s magnetic field continued to weaken ten times faster than previously recorded. What if it weakened at an exponential rate? Had anyone considered that? Okay, so she wasn’t a geochronologist like Mom was before she fell sick. However, Birk had always admired Mom’s logic. If only they could talk about the issue together. She missed their family debates when her parents argued over dinner. Dad, an astronomer, had sometimes won the match, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the power of persuasion.
How could she prove her theory to the Professor? She needed convincing data. Why hadn’t she recorded the facts? When she saw the water draining down the plughole the wrong way, she was too stunned to think? Had she seen it or was she dreaming? At least that told her something useful. The magnetic reversal might take as long as a hundred years rather than overnight, wouldn’t it? Then again, when had the fluctuations begun? Could they have started years ago? No, surely someone would have noticed? Without the magnetic field’s protection from the sun’s energetic particles and cosmic rays, cancer rates might soar. Was Mom one of the victims? Until last year, she had never had a day of illness in her life. Her genetic map had not so much as a blemish. Now she lay on a cot counting the days in the brand new, multi-million, purpose-built hospice funded in part by Astromine donations. Was that why they built the hospice? How long had they known of the danger? Why had no one warned the public?
In the laboratory, Birk stared at the specimens’ cages. Students were discouraged from naming the animals, but Birk couldn’t resist the temptation.
“Hey, Santa!” She pushed a beetle through the bars and the bat, a Christmas Island Pipistrelle, swallowed it whole. Saved from extinction back in 2007 the captive breeding program had been a resounding success. However, the species reintroduction plan was, to date, a failure. She longed to get out of the lab again. How she hated office politics.”If you’re still here, Santa, then there’s hope, right?” The tiny creature seemed to watch her. How would it survive a polar reversal? How would any of them? She imagined the solar storms and the resulting carnage.
A knock on the door startled her. A man, a Rehabber from his uniform, poked his head around the door and grinned at her.
“Forgotten something?” he said.
“No. You shouldn’t be in here. You don’t have clearance or a clean-suit.”
“Okay. Fair enough. I won’t return your tablet until I’ve sterilized it–happy?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped.” She was as bad as the professor. “I’ve got things on my mind. Thank you.”
“I could tell.” He slid inside the lab with his back to the wall. “You looked miserable in the cafeteria and I thought, ‘what’s she got to worry about?’ And I see you here surrounded by all these animals, and I think you must be the luckiest woman alive.” He pointed at Santa, “Can I touch him?”
“No. None of them can be handled. They’re supposed to be released back into the wild.”
“Shame. When’s that going to happen?”
“When we can figure out why they die when they’re set free.”
“Maybe they’re like canaries and detect the toxic atmosphere. I expect I’d die too if they ever let me out.”
“Why are you a Rehabber? Sorry, that’s too personal.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind saying. Made a mistake, and now I’m paying.” He stretched out his hand, “I’m Lyre, Lyre Stringer. Will you let me know when the animals get their absolution?”
“Yes, when they’re forgiven and granted their freedom.”
“You’ll have a long wait. The project’s shelved for the time being. We’re stuck in this sterile lab forever.”
“Other priorities.” But a good question. Could their death-rate on release be related to the magnetic reversal? Bats used magnetoception to navigate. Two competing hypotheses tried to explain the phenomenon, but as yet, no one knew which was correct.
Lyre hunkered down near Santa’s cage for a closer look. “He’s a fat little bat. Have you fed him too many treats?”
She laughed. “I do have a soft spot for him. Tell me, is it true that you adulterate the food in the Tranquilo Cafeteria?”
“No way. That would sabotage my probation. The gossip-mongers love to make out we’re the bad guys. It’s like a shell game. If they’re talking about us little guys, they miss the monster criminals.”
“Who are they?”
“Astromine. They’re the only ones making any money around here. Look at all their commercials. They’re into everything from hospitals to schools.”
“I know what you mean. They hold the purse strings for the release project. Still, I’m happy Santa’s staying here for a while.”
“I bet that’s because Astromine wants to cover up their mistakes.”
“Don’t you boffins read the news?”
“I’m not in the loop. Family matters have taken up all of my free time.”
“There’s an inquiry into financial mismanagement. How do you think they ever got permission to bring those asteroids into our solar system?” He gave a sly wink. “Allegations of bribery from a whistleblower.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it in for them. Why is that?”
Lyre pursed his lips and whistled.
“What did you do with all the money?” Birk said. “I heard that Media Corps paid you a six figure check for leaking the facts of that story.”
“I see. So you heard the gossip but not the facts. The money was forfeited. They took everything I had. The government holds all Rehabbers’ assets in trust to stop us re-offending.”
Birk turned on her tablet and pulled up a list of recent research papers from other students. She remembered speed-reading the titles. One, in particular, caught her attention.
Lyre leaned over her shoulder. “What are you looking for?”
They both read from the screen about possible links between migratory birds abandoning their nests and eggs, salmon failing to return to their origins to reproduce, and a dole of loggerhead sea turtles beached on the coast of Cuba. Lyre finished reading first.
“What does it mean?”
“I agree with the author, that we’re on the brink of a magnetic reversal. Those animals have lost their ability to navigate.”
“Because they rely upon magnetic north remaining stable.”
“Sounds like Armageddon.” He grinned. “I’d better get back to my pod and play a ceremonial last round of my favorite video games.”
“Forget that. A reversal will wreak havoc on our electrical grid. We need to act now.”
“Yes. No one’s going to listen to me, but they’ll listen to you. Use your contacts.”
“I don’t have any.”
“What about the media, the journalists you spoke to about Astromine’s activities.”
“I could, but what would I say? I don’t know anything about animals. You’re the guru on that topic.”
“I’ll feed you the lines. You make the video-call. Once Media Corps get hold of the story, it will go viral. Astromine’s name will be dirt. They’ll be forced to export the asteroids.”
Lyre examined his fingernails. “I don’t know that I can face the media again now I’m discredited, a pathetic Rehabber.”
“You said you’d made a mistake. What did you do?”
“Celebrated my good fortune with that check you mentioned. Partying with the wrong crowd, people I didn’t know and accepted a drink from anyone. What an idiot! I was busted and wasted by the end of the evening. So now, here I am three months into my rehabilitation.”
“Sounds like you’re guilty of stupidity. Why not do something clever instead?”
“Look at me, I’ve lost everything, my reputation, my career, my life. Astromine always wins.”
“Don’t be such a defeatist. Here’s your chance to tame your notoriety and demonstrate your rehabilitation. You’ll be the savior of the animal kingdom and maybe a few humans.”
He grinned. “And a God to the video game addicts. Maybe they’ll give me an award.”
“You’ve got to earn it first.” She handed him the tablet primed for a video-chat.
The Internet surged with pictures, chatter, and video footage. Lyre’s breaking news burst and saturated the world in seconds. Astromine’s CEO spoke to the media in real-time but his placatory patter was drowned by the opposition’s outrage. Lyre was a hero for a second fifteen minutes.
Birk braced herself for the Professor’s reprimand.
“You do realize,” the professor said, “that I know you’re the instigator, Birk? You should never have gone over my head. There’s a hierarchy for a reason. The Human Resources department want my hide. For years, they’ve needed an excuse to fire me.”
“I admit it’s my fault, but I didn’t have any choice. Nobody listened to me.”
“Well,” he sighed, “I’m too old to start again. That’s me out of a job. You too I expect. The wheels are in motion. Astromine is expediting the asteroids’ export. You’ve got what you wanted.”
“No, they can continue mining, but not in our solar system. More costly, but safer. You’ll have more time for all your hobbies. You’re alive, and you have your health. That’s more than many people.”
“What about you? Your unfinished thesis?”
“Me? No more theories or sterile studies.” She slipped off her lab coat and took Santa from his cage. “I’m off into the field for a practical life in the wild.”
Banner Image – Photography by User: MrX [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons