The late afternoons sun warmth pushed a soft wind into the backyard. The neighborhood was mostly older homes built in the 1950’s, it was a quiet area where Carroll McKenna had moved from back east to California, after her husbands death. She had called a meeting of “the group” trying to do something about the food crisis in the western part of the United States, for her specifically this meant the Northern region of California.
The membership of this group were graduate students and science oriented people from corporations volunteering in their spare time, engineers and biologists and teachers.
Most of them were friends now, after years of working together on this most informal of projects. The majority of them were from the Northern California, Oregon and Washington regions. A couple of them visiting from Texas and New Mexico, for this most critical of meetings.
Carroll had initially had the idea of a kick-start program to raise cash for their efforts. It had not worked. So this evenings meeting was a make or break gathering.
She had a nice two story home with a small covered patio out back. Carroll herself was 43 years old, a nice looking woman with long brown hair. She was of Scots-Irish background. She was not a scientist nor an engineer like the others. She had a background in New York and Boston with banking and marketing.
At this time in her life, she had left the New York finance arena to have her own food business and make a new start. It was how she learned of the full nature of the food crisis directly from the people nearby, who supplied her enterprise with unique varieties of fresh produce.
Her suppliers were going out of business due to the long devastating drought and the die off of wild bees and the pollution of gene stock and from a variety of other causes outside of the boundaries of their control.
In the big grocery store chains there was plenty of produce from large agriculture operations. What had drastically changed was on the margins of what most people bought.
It was unimportant to most that the rare and native cultivators were now dwindling. They had lettuce and tomatoes and corn and squash, potatoes and such. What was bothering most people was only the rapidly rising costs.
Carroll herself was not religious about odd varieties of oranges, tomatoes and kale. What had alarmed her was the implications. She did not need the money, she had made that already.
Carroll went to a lecture at University of California Irvine concerning agriculture and Northern California many years back. The subject of the lecture was the decline of wild bees.
That is where she met Mike Warren, a white haired, 61 year old, retired chemist and Graham the tall redhead, who was an active electrical engineer and Susan Moore a youngish and blond plant biologist who taught at the junior college in Marin County.
After the lecture she had gone up to talk with them, as they were hanging about the hall after, speaking among themselves.
Her perspective was new to them. She was very informed about the financial consequences to the smaller farms and what was happening to the stores and resurants. In a manner she was as fact based and scientific, as they were.
Here at her house these years later, they had gone through various stages and realizations and approaches to discuss, then try and educate and theoretically solve some of the food issues, all to no avail.
They had changed name 5 times. They had written to the local papers, set up booths at farmers markets. They conducted meetings at libraries. They were treated well and people showed interest but nothing much happened.
Carroll was a wizard at marketing using social media and a web site and blogs and networking links and contacts. And that aspect of their effort seemed lively and active. That activity was mostly an illusion.
She had made lots of great snacks and dips this evening and had wine and drinks fixings, all set out around the patio. It would be a party first and a meeting second, as was customary with her.
Candles and lanterns were lit as the guests arrived and mingled a bit. In the background the Polish Internet Radio station Polskastacja provided American blues music over the portable wireless speakers.
After a time Carroll said in a loud voice..”well what are we going to do?” No one answered.
Graham Evans, the red headed engineer, got up and brought a large box onto the patio. He took out a black sphere the size of a basketball that was cut hollow and set it on the floor. He used his smart phone as a controller and made the sphere hover up and fly around the patio. He then brought it to rest in the box it came in.
Graham announced “We got the prototype to work… though it is far too big and only works for a few moments due to battery weight.”
Mike interjected “ That’s great but how does it impact our work right now?”
Everyone there knew Mikes outlook. He was the least shy about expressing himself. He was a chemist but had many years of amateur experience in political groups decades before.
Susan Moore spoke up “My cousin Tom works for the Senate Committee for Agriculture. He told me he could wrangle a place for us at the hearing next month. we could at the least, say something.”
This caused a bit of excitement and Graham added “ Well that’s terrific news! We could tell the story of what is happening here and suggest some remedies. Get something going!”
Mike thought silently and allowed a few others to speak and he considered their suggestions for the Senate hearing, if they could get really a seat there, which to him seemed unlikely.
Mike adjusted his glasses and rubbed his face and waited for the conversation to subside” What is it exactly we want from such a possible opportunity?”
Carroll knew he had something in mind and that his question was just for the sake of argument rather than a real question. She laughed “…go on tell us what you think Mike?”
“If we get this opportunity let’s keep things modest and try to get a letterhead or designation and some cash . We should drop the speeches and science and cater to the committee and large commercial agriculture interests.” was Mikes reply
Everyone knew Mike was their best person for this and if there was some gain, he would get it. It was a disappointment to Graham and some of the others who wanted to be more direct and challenging. But the logic of Mikes idea was none the less convincing.
Then the evening turned into a real celebration, as now just maybe their loose project had a reprieve from going under.
Mike arrived in Washington D.C. two days before the Senate hearing. He called Susan’s cousin Tom but his calls and texts and emails were not returned.
There was not much for Mike to do. His motel room was fairly close to the Capitol and he drove over in his rental car to see what time he would have to leave, on the day of the hearing.
The first night there he went to a bar-b-cue restaurant recommended by Susan and it was terrific and not too expensive, ribs was it.
The motel room he rented was nice, if typical. He lay on the bed, turned on the TV and flipped through all the channels a couple of times and turned it off.
His presentation for the Senate hearing was done and rehearsed already, before he left home. He wanted the couple of extra days to settle in and go slow, as he was not sure what to expect. It had been two decades since he did any important public speaking.
He thought to himself, it did not really matter. This was a foolish attempt but he was going to go through the motions, as well as he could. He had called and emailed the other presenters who were to be on the panel. He wanted them to see him and the group as other regular lobbyists.
The other presenters were most of the big players in US agriculture. Their offices politely responded to Mike and the Western States Research Initiative. He wanted someone in their organizations to know what they were about, before the hearing. He got replies and spoke to some of their staff, he was unsure that it had gotten through to the principles, who would actually be there.
That Tom, Susan’s cousin got them a spot at this hearing seemed strange, as they were nobody at all.
Mike got up and took a hot shower and then tried to sleep but tossed and turned. It did not matter, as the next day was a free day to sight see and make some last minute calls and texts and emails, none of which mattered at all.
In the morning he went and got a free breakfast in the motel lobby and chit chatted with some of the other guests. It was pleasant enough for Mike, he was happy, the weather was right.
He walked over to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and called Carroll and Susan from a bench in the park next to the Jefferson Memorial. It was a relaxed day with a large amount of walking exercise.
The evening before the hearing he ordered Chinese take out food delivered to his room. He had the House Special Soup which was loaded with vegetables and shrimp and beef and chicken, terrific really.
He watched the news on the TV, one story was about a ban on chicken from Kentucky due to an outbreak of bird flu. It was the 6th state in the Midwest to have this particular outbreak. This was not a part of his groups work but it was a real part of the general food crisis and escalating prices due to bad practices in the food industry.
He shut off the report before it concluded and had a drink of water and went to bed very early. It was his plan to get up before light and go over to the Capitol and just hang out and do nothing till the time for the hearing came.
The next morning he got up at 5 AM, showered and dressed and drove over. He went through security and found the Senate cafeteria and had coffee.
Rather than be positively excited, he was mildly nervous, a bit bored and wished he had not pushed this idea forward and self selected himself to be the group’s representative.
Around 8 A.M. he walked to the hearing room but it was still locked. He returned to the cafeteria and had a regular breakfast of grits and eggs and more coffee.
He lingered over his meal. Then he walked back to the Senate Hearing Chamber. It was now open.
Senate Chamber 16-A was nearly empty, as he entered. The long curved elevated section where the Senators would be, was entirely vacant. In the room a few reporters sat in the back of the room chatting. The Senate staff were quietly setting up placement of name tags and testing out the microphones.
A couple of people were already seated. The Agriculture Committee chairman Gesson a short stocky red faced man walked in and put his briefcase down took some papers from it, put them on his place on the podium and then left.
Little by little, people filled the room. The Chairman returned…One of the other people who was in the room early, went up and spoke to Chairman Gesson. Mike could hear them exchanged pleasantries.
“How’s your daughter?”
Chairman Gesson answered “She is doing great second year at Oklahoma State, all good except for her math course but she is getting it.”
The unidentified person continued “I will try and stop by if you are back home and I am in town”.
Gesson, replied “That would be nice, perhaps we could have a cook out and play some golf.” The unidentified person nodded shook the Chairman’s hand and returned to his seat.
Mike took note that none of the reporters payed any attention to this interaction. And he took note that no business of the Committee was mentioned. Later he would realize this was an exchange between the Chairman and a chief lobbyist for the Florida Citrus industry. It bespoke a relationship. In some fashion it was more important than anything official that would follow.
The long table where Michael sat filled in and he said hello to the people next to him on either side. One was from Tyndale Chicken Corporation the nations largest chicken farming operation. On his other side was Neal Dees from the food transportation Company, Alteron.
All of the others testifying were corporate except for Mikes group Western States Initiative. It was a name chosen carefully so as to not appear to be a politically oriented .
They wanted to fit in unnoticed. Mike had gotten a hair cut the day before he left and bought a very nice suit at the Goodwill store. He had also new shoes from the thrift store and he looked exactly the same as his fellow presenters.
The meeting was called to order and the Chairman welcomed all and announced the purpose of the hearing. It was to address the agricultural crisis, that was causing prices to rise dramatically.
In truth it was a cover for the various industries to ask for tax breaks and subsidies. The Western States Initiative group was looking for funding and an official designation to build upon. Mike would be content with five dollars and the ability to use a letterhead that had Federal Government plastered on it.
His insistence on having such modest goals and not making a real presentation of fact, had caused a lot of argument with the others in his group, up until the time he got on the plane for the Capitol.
The Senate Chairman’s claim to fame was dumping a bucket of ice from the parking lot to disprove climate change. The simple arithmetic of global temperature averages would not impress anything on this panel nor would any other scientific facts. Their expertise was money and politics.
But the Senators did like to pretend sometimes to know the jargon of agriculture. One by one the other presenters made their prepared statements… as best they could concealing their desire for tax breaks and handouts.
When it came to Mikes turn he launched into a direct appeal for cash and Federal approval. “We consider it imperative for the protection of Western States agriculture to look beyond the cultivated fields and pastures. Outside of private agricultural property and concerns lay threats to their internal operations, that they cannot legally manage or touch.
Biological threats from outside can and will intrude on their operations. Currently wild bee populations are dying off and while the farms that use domesticated bees are safe, the wild bee populations may impact commercial operations at anytime in the near future. That is why we are asking for one and one half million dollars and an official designation.
In no way are we asking for restrictions or new rules for commercial operations. We are asking for approval to assist and save Western States commercial agriculture and the nations food supply in general.”
He was thanked for his testimony and the hearing went on to other subjects before the question and answer portion began. They had a brief recess.
Other presenters came up to Mike in the hallway. They were friendly and supportive. Mike asked them to say a word or two in favor of his proposal. And surprisingly when the hearing reconvened, they did exactly that, they urged approval for The Western States Initiative. It was a way to cover their own pleading with something that looked like general public agricultural interest.
After the recess all the representatives of the agricultural interests came back to their places followed by their attendants. There was not a Senator present but slowly they arrived and sat at their places followed by their staff members. The hall behind the panel also again filled in with members of the press, interested parties and Senate workers.
Michael felt better now as the day wore on, less nervous and not so out of place.
Chairman Gesson called the hearing back to order and began the question and answer session moving from his right side to allow the Senators to begin their interrogations of the panel.
The first was Florida Senator Mark Clark. “I would like to thank the participants for coming to this hearing. As we all know food prices and availability has become a public concern of late. So without taking any more time I would like to ask John Arthur of the Citrus Council what he thinks should be done to protect this valuable public industry and a most important resource for my home State of Florida?”
John began “ It is an honor to address the Senate about the current conditions. Last summer the lack of rain in Florida and California caused an increase in imports of citrus products. The net loss to our industry was over 15 million dollars. That and the increased cost of domesticated bee pollination has put our food supply and economic health at risk. The Citrus Council proposes a reduction in our tax payments to help compensate for these losses”.
Senator Clark asked in response “What amount of tax relief are we talking about here?”
John quickly answered “We have no specific request but if approved we would hope Congress would consider the amount carefully. We would be available to provide a full accounting of our losses to date and projections.”
He paused “This affects more than the Citrus industry..The economic conditions of the nations economy is as stake from poultry and live stock operations and farming of all types. Here on this panel is a research group The Western States Initiative.” He looked at Mike. They are not a business interest but are here because the entire food supply is at risk with pricing issues..This is not just a request for citrus but a true general food crisis.”
Mike did not react overtly to this mention but was quite encouraged that one of the players in this hearing had mentioned his group by name. His lobbying during the recess and before via phone calls and email had some success.
He also knew the statement of support was just cover for their tax handout.
The next Senator and then the next questioned the various representatives of the industries but did not ask Mike one question. Another panel member mentioned Mikes group favorably.
The afternoon session grew long. Chairman Gesson finally took an opportunity to ask Mike for his proposal. It startled Mike. He held up their position paper. “ I ask that our this document AC-76 be entered into the record and I will briefly summarize our proposal. We are seeking to establish experimental research into solving some of the issues for Western States agriculture that also will benefit all 50 states.”
Gesson interrupted and probed into this, “For example?”
Mike provided one proposal “Public lands surround many of the larger farming operations. Genetically Modified Crops benefit from having buffers planted around them to insulate them from outside pests and issues with other farms. Pesticide use can be concentrated on these buffers and reduce costs to commercial operations. We suggest we use the land the government already owns to provide these buffer areas, while the farms themselves do not have to sacrifice planted acreage. We need Federal authority to do that at very low cost and without additional regulation.”
Gesson asked further “Low cost? How low? Federal authority? What sort of authority?”
Mike provided “ We need to be able to use a Federal mandate on already owned Federal land to allow buffers to be grown and some additional planting. But this is just one of our areas of research, we have a project to engineer artificial drone bees to offset the decline in wild bees. We have already a prototype developed and our general request for funding is 1.5 million dollars for all our current research.”
Gesson just looked at Mike silently and after a short time said “Thanks you for your proposal. It seems some of our other panelists support your effort. We will give this some consideration”.
The hearing went on. Mike was asked nothing more by anyone. Late in the afternoon the hearing was closed. Mike went to leave with the others.
Tom Ankra the Senate staff member related to Susan Moore stopped Mike from exiting “I think it went well.” He waited for Mike to say what he thought.
Mike “ I really do not know, but it did not go terrible.”
“ I am Susan’s cousin Tom.” Tom asked him to accompany him back to his own office so they could talk.
Tom’s tiny office was in the heart of the Senate hearing room area of the Capitol. It was empty and quiet there.
Tom launched quickly into a rundown “Nothing will be decided for a month or more even if the decisions have already been made. It is standard operating procedure. You did well considering you have no working relationship with anyone here and no money to offer or anything else really. I am sorry we did not get to speak before the hearing but you handled it like a pro. My cousin Susan is a real case, very outspoken at home on the holidays. You do not seem like her type at all”.
He paused “I offered you up to Chairman Gesson, I figured you would go on and on like my cousin. I did not warn you that I expected Gesson to use you as an object of ridicule…I was not really helping you out.”
Michael was not phased by this confession “ Susan and I are very similar in our views just of different temperament and I spent some many years as a political worker and volunteer. Until I quit.”
Tom asked “What made you quit? You seem like a natural.”
Mike explained “Well I was at a session of the California Legislature when I was about 22, as a helper to a State Representative for no pay.
I was dressed like this, tie and all and a tour group came up to where I was observing the live budget session. A blond woman on the tour asked me “Why wasn’t I at the beach?” She could tell I was out of place and she was bored to death. She said after a pause “…that she had seen businessmen wearing suits before.” She said it such a tone that I had to ask myself why wasn’t I at the beach and why was I dressed like a Realtor. It was a few weeks later that I dropped out of the local party organizations.”
Tom was taken aback as it seemed partway an attack on his career choice and his life. And he felt guilty at using Mike and Susan even if it had not gone as planned. But he knew immediately what Mike meant. And he knew it was not directed at him. Yet it scared him some.
“Jesus, Mike you are a weird guy, I will keep you informed of anything relevant I learn, if I do hear anything. The Chairman was trying to get you to say something like my cousin would say, trying to trip you up. I am sure he will be mad at me.”
“Gesson surprised me, in the news he seems like an idiot, in person he is something else.” opined Mike.
Tom added “Gesson is a circus act in public, in private he is hard working and knowledgeable. He gained the Chairman position by saying crazy things, to please his small base of Oklahoma voters and gain headlines.”
Mike confessed “I was careful about making eye contact with him, not too little eye contact, not too much. He seemed very much in charge, a true physical presence.”
Tom Ankra concluded their conversation”Mike you were made for this. Hope you got to enjoy the beach a lot after you quit politics.”
I was at the beach and in the mountains all the time when I wasn’t studying chemistry or hanging out with my girl friend.” Mike replied.
They looked at each other with mixed regard, as they parted.
A month and half passed and they heard nothing. One afternoon Susan Moore got a letter from her cousin Tom and inside it was another, a sealed letter from the Senate. She called Mike at once. “We got Federal authorization, of a sort, and 50,000 dollars.”
Mile was so pleased and the entire group was quickly informed.
Tuesday night Mike and Susan and Carroll met at Carroll’s once again to discuss what had happened.
“It is not much money. We should give it all to Graham for his bee project. For our other projects and plans we have to raise more cash and cooperation using our new “authority” which is next to no authority.” Mike suggested.
Carroll and Susan agreed. Carroll began to quickly list what she thought they should do, online and in print to play up their new story. “We should delay direct appeals for money and action until we have all the legalities squared away. Right now we just need freshly squeezed publicity.”
Susan said “This is so great there is new life to our thing. Tom told me he was very impressed with how you presented at the Senate hearing. He wants you back for further testimony and meetings with the Department of Agriculture. Tom is with us 100% which is odd as we always argue.”
Mike said “ I like him OK, though he is a typical operative. We understand one another and he will gain from our association, as will we. He sort of wants to do the right thing, not just pose, not exactly though”.
Susan added “He was a lot of fun as we grew up together.” she paused “ I kind of thought he had gone over to the dark side after the Washington D.C. move. But I guess even our holiday dinner arguments were never in ill temper.”
Mike added “Oh he has gone over to the dark side alright, but not entirely”. He withheld that Tom had sought to betray them.
“Well there is no need to discuss this any further now, I will organize a publicity and marketing campaign. Mike you need to be available for this…. radio interviews, TV…. outreach… OK?” Carroll asked.
“Sure”, Mike replied, “… It is my own fault.”
Mike continued “I want to ask Pete Bronson to survey a buffer zone for the Mountain View farm soy field for Pacific Eight near the high school where I live. He will do it for nothing, if we go with him and bring cigars and beer and some eats. It is a real project not just talk and gives us something more to send back to the Senate quickly to show our seriousness.”
Carroll and Susan liked Pete and knew it would be a fun outing and get something real done. And they could ride in one of his four wheeler off road vehicles. As they had done on picnics.
Pete Bronson was not exactly a member of the group but was a friend. He had been a surveyor and used his intimate knowledge of the area to buy and sell unimproved property. It has made him a wealthy man without getting him involved in the day to day struggles of business.
He knew Carroll from a time before he made his real money. It was on a chance meeting at a farm he was surveying. She was there to buy heirloom tomato varieties that she resold to local gourmet restaurants.
There had been a dispute as to property boundaries between the farm’s owners and the people who owned the adjoining land. He went to the farm and asked permission to do the survey on their side of the fence, as it was cleared and easier to walk there. He set up his gear and walked it off. The land next to the farm was wild and the people who owned it were the ones paying him.
Pete knew it would appear hostile to just go at it, on the outside. He wanted to appear friendly and not as some invader. The farm owner was resigned to the conflict and if it took some land, that was that.
When lunch time came the farmer called Pete in to have some and Carroll was already seated when he joined them. They exchanged stories and took a long break from all their tasks. That had now been 5 years ago.
Pete and his family had become friends with Carroll and he knew the entire group and had them all over to his place several times for parties and cookouts.
He would drive them around his property and neighborhood in his all terrain vehicles.
Mike and he would sit on the deck at Pete’s house and drink beer and watch California State sports, when they playing any sport at all. They had interesting conversations about all sorts of things. Pete knew his land and plants and such. He kept his own place as natural as could be and enjoyed seeing wildlife, which would crawl up into his drained pool at times. He put a few boards in it so they could get out.
Pete did not do any surveying himself anymore but when Mike called him about doing the soy field survey, he took no convincing. But he insisted the group members volunteered to do some of the work.
He studied his map information on his phone for a good gathering point and parking area and suggested they set up a sort of day camp there with folding tables and chairs and ice chests so they could have a picnic and take time outs.
Mike contacted Pacific Eight Farm in his home town about their survey work and they had been cooperative and he went to their offices and presented their Federal credentials and spoke to them about how they might be able to reduce pesticide costs and restore the effectiveness of their weed killer somewhat..
They were aware of the notion of planting a buffer around their fields but did not do it. If the city and county and Federal Government would use their land on the other side of the boundaries, it was welcome. It would reduce the city mowing the edges, out to the roads. It was doing something for a variety of interests.
The soy farm had already taken much criticism for excessive water use, this was an opportunity for them to appear “green” and they took it. They took a couple of photos of Mike during his visit and were going to write up a press release. This was what Mike had envisioned to boost their efforts. It was good publicity for them all.
The genetically altered soy plants were designed to be resistant to the weed killer made by the same company that altered the soy genes. They could spray the field and all the weeds would die. Eventually though one weed, Pig Weed evolved a strain of its own that was just as immune to the weed killer.
All the soy in the region was in danger of being overtaken by Pig Weed. It was easy enough to remove by hand but it had been 40 years since the agriculture business in that region had done any hand work on such crops as soy. There was no base of farm workers anymore to hire to do this kind of weed picking.
While soy was not a main crop of the area, it was still important. The idea that nature would stand still forever while corporate agriculture fashioned a perfect mono-culture was just plain irrational.
But regulators and politicians were convinced by market share rather than the science and logic and encouraged and permitted this dangerous practice.. Water use was the least of it now for soy, in Northern California.
Pete and his teen aged sons were already set up Saturday morning of the survey. They brought three All Terrain Vehicle’s, lots of other gear, and stuff to eat and drink.
Mike drove up and set up. He had also brought an ice chest and food and drinks.
Graham and his friends Larry and Ava showed and set up their picnic items . Carroll and Susan came in a bit late with even more things.
The strip of public land surrounding the soy field had little vegetation and was mostly sand with some scrub. It appeared to be desert land but had not been so. It used to be plain ordinary green grass and weeds.
On the soy farm side of the property, it was not much different except for the rows and rows of soy and pig weeds that were very carefully irrigated.
It should go quickly as there was nothing but long straight lines . They would leap positions, plant stakes record positions and that was it. The planting would come later using plants from nearby. They had no money for that part of the project. One thing at a time, was all they could do but it was happening.
Pete checked his GPS with his magnetic compass and the sun, he was a man in both the electronic world and traditional surveying. He had anyone interested to calibrate their GPS devices on their cell phones to the same satellite contacts and compass heading. They had 18 of 22 satellites fix their position and their first heading was magnetic 22.4 degrees North East.
He set up his tripod and Mike and Pete’s son went on to set up the first sighting pole and marker. Carroll and Pete’s other son drove on up ahead. Mike and the first son drove up on, out of the way and Pete took his measurements and record them. Then called he them on his cell phone and they then made their way quickly down the line of demarcation in this fashion.
By late afternoon they had a complete survey of this aspect of the property. They retreated to the assembled ice chests and folding chairs for their picnic.
Pete went to his car and got out a stick with pointed iron weights hanging from it and a second stick…He set up the stick in the ground and sighted it with the stick with the hanging stuff. “It’s called a groma ….it is an ancient Roman surveying device not essentially different from what we used today.” Pete said.
Carroll asked him “What is the reason you brought it, Pete?”
Pete replied “The Old time Romans did not need a magnetic compass or any electricity to do what they did. I love this stuff but I am afraid of something that goes along with this here, Groma.” and he shook it, and the weights swung.
Pete paused “Nothing can go wrong these days and we are here doing this survey because things are in fact, going wrong. If things fail now it will be different than when the Romans went down. People in the Empire went from raising pigs and chickens to raising pigs and chickens.
Some of the outlying regions didn’t notice the Empire had collapsed. It wont be that way now…there is lots of soy here now but hardly a pig or a chicken to be found outside a factory. People have gotten so they cannot draw a straight line without an electronic device or a big contract.”
Pete went on “Surveying is my thing. I side with pro-growth types and make cash off of development. …The buffer zones were always a practice in the books for Genetically Modified Crops…it could be done safely but it isn’t. Also marking out safe zones and buffers is work for guys like me, even though I am out of it.”
Pete asked “Did any of you notice any insects at all?”
No one spoke up.
“I have no idea what they are spraying here or not spraying but I did not see one bug…bugs have eaten me alive all my years of surveying. I notice things like that. We were not on the soy field side of the fences.”
The publicity campaign went well and volunteers joined in and money was donated. The Western States Initiative research group was even approached by venture capital. There was not a profit to be made with their efforts but tax write-offs were available. Mike kept their efforts friendly with the principle economic interests and went back to Washington with results and more than proper accounting.
He was getting even more tired of doing all the political work, he maintained his options to visit the sights in D.C. and to take side trips to the Eastern Mountains and find good cheap places to eat. All the while the general food crisis grew worse. It was ironic how well he and the group membership ate, while the crisis expanded.
The new war in the Middle East had caused a spike in fuel costs that added to the food price side of it.
There was a new President which changed exactly nothing.
Chairman Gesson stayed on in his position. Mike avoided him as much as was possible. He went to visit Tom Ankra at his apartment to keep that relationship good.
He also went to the various Departments in any way related to their efforts. NASA was one of them.
NASA’s Ted Davis showed him the view of their California area from space. It looked very different than the photos on the Internet, much higher resolutions.
Ted was the NASA team leader for all photo archives. He told Mike “We put out as much as we can and it does get repeated all over the Internet. The lakes and reservoirs drying up is pretty dramatic, famous really. But there are other indicators less photogenic.”
Mike looked at him, questioning?
Ted showed him some new large format photos. “The color ranges of some of these other photos show a change of vegetation type that is different than just obvious places drying up. Other things are happening beyond water.” Ted added. “There is a rapid change of various areas that have nothing at all to do with any one factor. To be honest no one here knows what we are looking at.”
“Would you email me these photos at this full resolution?” Mike requested.
Ted answered “Sure but the file sizes are huge. One photo can be a third of a gigabyte.”
Mike said “It will be OK my friend Graham is all set up for big file transfers at high speed and dealing with images”.
“OK we will do it right now, what’s his address?”
Mike drove to the Washington D.C. airport turned in his rental car and went to wait at his departure gate.
The TV was on with the news, weather and sports. The Middle East conflict was discussed briefly. The new President said a few words about banking regulation. It was raining in Florida and the New York Jets football team had fired their general manager.
No one was paying attention to any of it. Mike was thinking of his NASA visit and a different kind of news.
Underneath the headlines and lead stories something was happening. All the various threads of whatever it was, were treated separately but there was a convergence. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Washington D.C. and the Agriculture Committee or the football games or the price of food or gasoline.
He thought when he got back home he would suggest they go secret on some of their work and cut loose from a purely public effort. They should recruit more skilled people in private and not disclose much of what they were really working on.
Their projects were being overtaken by events already. What seemed like something to work on, now seemed done, no longer newsworthy. They could not keep up with things.
The normal narrative on TV, of celebrities getting married and divorced was more suitable. What celebrities eat and what clothes they wear and how they select vacation spots for themselves, was far more understandable.
Mike realized this was normal and OK. People were not meant to figure out the chemistry of a complicated world, like he was schooled to do. People were meant to eat apples and sit around in the forest looking at the clouds.
The others waiting on the airplane to arrive could not build a plane or fly one. Neither could he. This is what the NASA guy was saying in a way,”something is happening but none of us knows what it is.”
The plane to California arrived and the arriving passengers disembarked and the new departing passengers lined up with their carry on bags and boarded… down the narrow passageway to their seats.
Terrance Kendall was a a very young and very famous physics professor who worked occasionally with NASA as an independent contractor. He was only 25 and had been on the cover of Scientific American and Time Magazine for his work in Nobel Prize wining physics discoveries concerning quantum randomness.
The groups NASA contact, Ted Davis, was personal friends with him. Ted tried to put them together with the Western States group for a discussion. It never seemed to happen though, Terrance was busy always or they were, every time an arrangement was tried, it failed.
On the summer break Terrance got free on purpose, so they planned a meeting that actually happened. It took place at Santa Cruz Community College while it was mostly closed down. It was midway from where Terrance was visiting and the principles of the group lived.
He was waiting for them when Carroll and Mike and Susan and Graham Evans, arrived. They shook hands all around and introduced themselves.
Terrance started off abruptly “I am here to inform you of something very odd and to discuss with you a general principle of the food crisis and how it intersects other issues.”
He paused “The top people in Washington are planning an underground facility to house them and supplies and a huge staff and some of their family members and others …due to the rapidly accelerating food and environmental issues. They approached NASA through the Defense Department in what was to have been a secret, to select a good location for their bunker.”
None of the group said a thing in response.
Terrance went on “It came to my attention and to Ted’s and some other people with NASA. It is a ridiculous plan that will accomplish nothing except that these important people will be in a hole in the ground for awhile. To stay long enough for a general natural recovery would take 1000 years or more.
What is ironic is that many of the same people who deny there are climate and environmental problems, are chief in insisting on being protected from it. The pretext is National security which is simply here security theater. They are afraid of angry mobs rather than food and other issues.”
Mike piped up “Chairman Gesson of the Agriculture Committee, I would bet.”
Terrance replied “I do not know about him specifically but it involves nearly them all. It is one of the worst kept secrets in history.” He laughed “Some of them told their secretaries that they plan on taking into the ground with them. This has been talked about on crazy talk radio shows. Some people think the government has created the food and environmental problems on purpose, as a weapon. That would be giving these characters too much credit.”
Graham Evans asked ”Is this an actual thing? You are kidding right?”
“No it is as actual as the atmosphere, and in full living color.”
Carroll said “So they wont do anything real to help the problems but want to save their own skins!”
Terrance sighed and went on “You know, it is not as bad as total apocalyptic doom coming on. If we would just stop adding to the problems. All that needs be done is some some reforms and changes, mainly just chill out. That, right now, would be a gigantic reform, to just chill…
They want to go into a hole pretending all the while to be in control. The many captains abandon the many ships while the passengers drown in the sea.“
“That is about it really.” Terence concluded. “The second part of why I came here was to discuss your efforts as a general principle.
Ted Davis is quite impressed with what you are doing. You are trying to do real things rather than talk crap. I am with you all the way. I can secure you equipment and talent and money on a large scale, if we can keep it quiet.”
“What Terrance?” Mike asked.
He answered “ I can get you multi-millions of dollars and any gear you want nearly and can recruit some of the best minds available. It is important that real things be done to preserve, what can be preserved. It can all be disguised as part of this idiotic hole in the ground secret project. Might as well put some of these resources to good use.
The problem that relates to physics here is that things are more random, it barely matters what our wishes and motives are. It is a general principle.”
Terrance went on “Things are going to happen regardless, old Newtonian physics says for every action there is a reaction. There are just too many actions happening now to be safe.
There are too many rolls of the dice. Even the best intentions are happening at too great a rate and across too large of a space. You guys are part of it as well, as I am. If everyone would stop and take a breather it would work out better on its own. But that is not in the cards.”
“Good motives matter, I do not get what you are talking about and how it relates to what is going on?” Graham put forward, in an irritated manner.
Terrance replied “ If you are walking across an 8 lane expressway full of cars going 75 miles an hour, you are dead meat, whatever the drivers want. At a slower speed and fewer cars the desires of the drivers might matter.
Or if things relate to money, big bags of gold coins enforce a human limit on what can be transacted. A digital network can do more cash transactions in a second than human traders can do in three years. At that rate the people owning the trades do not even know what they are trading. Rational trades have left the building. It is not economic.”
Graham said “Well I see what you mean when you put it that way. But I simply need help engineering my artificial bees to be smaller…solar powered self sustaining artificial intelligence drones. I do not require a physics theory or a general principle, even if it is true.”
Terrance said “NASA has people into all that and can help without even knowing what you are up to exactly.” Terrance assured Graham.
Graham put forward “Well let’s get on with it. It will still take time and I am not able to carry this off with a couple of volunteer helpers. We have done well and know what we want but it looks pretty large and amateur, as is.”
Terrance added “All this effort of yours may be a waste of time but it is a worthwhile folly and it is what the people in Congress and the White house should have been doing all along and promised to do.”
“I need the entire lot of you to come back to Huston Texas NASA, now, today and I will give you the keys to the kingdom. You will get identity cards, security clearance, bio-metric signatures and all that.”
Terrance finished. “It is now or never, a window is open that may shut forever.”
Decades later the International Space Station revolved up above the beautiful blue planet Earth. The two remaining astronauts were making ready to abandon the station using the one escape pod.
Re-supply missions had quit coming and the self sufficiency of the ISS had reached its most outer limits. They could leave now or die up there. The return to Earth was fraught with peril since they had little precise control over where they would “land” with a pod.
The alternative was to leave their two slowly rotting bodies on-board after they died. Or to take a space walk that went out but not back on board.
They did consider these alternatives to the escape pod. Times being what they were, all prospects were inside the realm of their considerations.
Years and years before, the situation on Earth had changed. In 2019 inside the USA the food and environmental crises caused massive unrest and disorder. Strangely enough things were not as physically bad as the population thought they were.
There were food riots and mass shutdowns because of the breakdown of confidence. The Stock Market collapsed. The Congress and Whitehouse decided to go into the underground shelter that they had planned. They would try and maintain a government there and manage things, as best they could.
The International Space Station was in contact with the underground Government bunker for awhile due to its part-ways NASA and governmental aspect.
The government in a hole controlled nothing much really and offered no useful guidance. The Space Station crew just stopped replying to the Congressional bunkers communications in 2023 but listened in on them carefully anyway.
After awhile the bunker became more like a nursing home for old politicians, a sort of Veterans Administration hospital facility with doctors and nurses in charge rather than the “ leaders” themselves. They were now essentially just patients. Some of them quite vigorous and mobile but patients or residents, none the less.
Some of their Congressional staff personal were quite a bit younger.
Many of the bunkers staff fled to go find their families and friends after just a few years. The majority of the youngish Congressional staff went with them.
The military aspect of the bunker at first was quite active but as things broke down outside and wars came and went, on other continents, the military role faded also.
Dr Simone Jura was effectively in charge of the bunkers operation for most of its middle years. She had thought to herself, that it was not much different than when the Congress was active, above ground.
It had nothing to do with the food crisis or going underground or their age. It was more a set of beliefs in which items like politics and polls and banking and the Stock Market was more real than anything actual. Dr Jura called it the functional equivalent of brain damage.
The dependent population, world wide, believed the same.
Modern people threw away the progress of ten thousand years for quite brief and fragile financial and political illusions.
The bunkers patients/residents who insisted that they were still important. figures of authority had to be sedated all the more, of course.
Dr Jura had lost everything above ground. Her family was either dead or just lost. Her home area of Miami, Florida was a dangerous and mostly empty ruin. There was no point of wandering aimlessly across the country, when she could stay here and do her work in personal safety.
The Space Station crew maintained active contact with some ships and submarines and a few isolated bases of various nations. Little by little transmission from these became less frequent.
The Western States Initiative had a couple of functioning facilities and some NASA credentials and communicated with the station from time to time for awhile.
Of the old group only Susan Moore lived long enough to see things play out fully. She died in 2054. The old group was replaced by younger people who kept at the various projects, in secret, for a time.
A great deal of conflict had erupted on Earth and then subsided. There was even a brief nuclear exchange in the Middle East and then another between India and Pakistan. These mini atomic wars had no decisive effect other than to shut down global modern civilization further, due to general fear and rumor. The atomic dead were in the millions, sacrificed for nothing really.
On the ground some people and villages had just adapted, rather than to go into hysterical panic. It was not really so bad for some remote self sufficient places.
The unfortunate weight of so many billions of others had dragged in many of the OK places though, by social gravity. Nature was one thing, human nature quite another type of thing. Human nature had its own natural laws, which were not as sane as natures physics and chemistry. Nature was mindless and would give anyone a break. People were not so easy.
Ivar was the Russian Cosmonaut and Sam the American Astronaut remaining on the Space Station.
Over the decades previous, the Station had many crews, some in the beginning, had normal 15 members crews and slowly over time descending numerically to just the two of them.
When the last resupply mission had reached the ISS it was clear what was going to happen and the majority of the crew left for Earth on the resupply ship, as there was no point in hanging on to perish there.
Ivar and Sam volunteered to stay and wrap things up. They would use the single escape pod to leave. They lost contact with their fellow crew mates who had returned. The crew members went back to Earth and then were never heard from again.
Ivar and Sam remained on board the ISS, for three years, after everyone else had left.
As the time approached to leave, they tried to collect their thoughts and composure. There was simply no idea what they would face back on Earth now. The station had become a safe home for them and leaving it for the uncertainty below was daunting. Each of them felt sick at the prospect.
They spent as much time alone in different parts of the International Space Station as they could, avoiding one another.
They were going to try and direct the escape pod to the part of central Siberia, called the Taiga. It was a vast region where a few villages had survived in a primate manner for some time. The small Taiga settlements were already primitive years before the troubles, these villages had to change the least. There was no telling now if these villages were still functioning.
Ivar spoke Russian and Siberian Russia was large and away from oceans and seas where they were sure to drown if they came down in water. No ships would save them now.
On the day of their departure they went about the station turning off all the life support equipment and leaving on the automatic communications gear. They got their few personal things and survival bags and entered the escape pod and turned on all systems within.
They did not say a world to one another, as they checked the settings and systems on the pod. There was an assumption on their part that they would not make it back in good condition, if at all. But they approached their tasks in a calm and professional manner.
At the last Ivar said “Well let us get this over with”. Sam replied “Might as well, can’t dance.” Ivar laughed and looked at Sam and placed his hand on the jettison pod control. Sam nodded and Ivar flipped the switch up and the pod pushed away slowly from the station. Once they were clear Sam fired the control jets that aimed them down towards the Earth below.
As the pod dropped into the Earths atmosphere at an angle, this heated up its exterior insulation. The long slow arc of its descent could only be adjusted a small amount using the pods thrusters. Sam executed those adjustments very precisely.
The angle of reentry was extended and little by little. They came down and circled the planet once. On the second orbit the heat shield was at 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and coming to the most critical phase where they would leave space and be entirely on their way to the Siberian Taiga region.
The pod was buffeted by atmospheric resistance and slowed more until they reached 30,000 feet, where Sam fired the thrusters to further slow their descent and to prepare to deploy their parachutes near a 25,000 foot altitude.
All went as well as could be, and they descended on chutes into the forest and broke a few trees before hitting ground and coming to rest.
Ivar and Sam looked at one another and smiled and then checked out the pod. Everything seemed intact, so at the least they had some solid shelter in the pod itself and a few supplies and some cut up parachute material and lines. They removed their helmets and gloves.
They opened the pod bay door hatch and emerged slowly into the dense warmth of the Siberian summer forest. They felt very slow and heavy even with training on board the station, Earth gravity was foreign to them now. Their faces and hands were immediately set on by swarms of mosquitoes. They retreated to the pod closed the hatch and spent ten minutes killing the mosquitoes that came in with them.
Sam exclaimed “I have never seen anything like this, the environment has become monstrous and uninhabitable”.
Ivar said “ No, Sam this is normal for Siberia in summer, I saw this on documentaries about the area years ago. The local people make a stinky paste out of tree bark to protect them and their animals. We should find something in our first aid kit that smells bad and use that until we can come up with something.”
They opened all their medical supplies till they found an ointment sufficiently awful smelling. They would have to wear their long heavy clothes so as to protect the most of their bodies.
They ate a portion of their rations and had some water mixed with electrolytes and went to sleep in the pod.
The next morning they put the stinky medication on themselves and emerged. It worked but the mosquitoes still buzzed around closely.
They turned on their GPS and fixed their position with the remaining satellites automatically functioning. Looking at their electronic map they found what might be the remaining village to the North and headed for it.
They took their solar array re-charger with them. Ivar wore it on his back collecting some small amount of electricity to operate their essential gear. The forest was thick and shadowy. There were many small birds and a few small mammals scurrying about. “Perhaps” Ivar said “we can survive here .”
They walked very slowly and leaned on trees and sat on the fallen ones. Every hour, for a half minute, they turned on the gps device to get readings in order to stay on course and to conserve battery power.
At the end of the first day they stopped and put together a shelter of leaves and thin branches. They dared not risk lighting a fire, as they were fearful of setting the forest ablaze.
Sam said out loud “This is so hard, what will we do if the village is not there anymore?”
Ivar answered “ I have not idea. Maybe if abandoned there will be things there and structures we can repair. Who knows?”.
The forest night was full of creaking and rustling and far off animal cries and vocalizations. The mosquitoes relented as it got dark. Sam and Ivar ate again only a small portion of their food supplies and drank some water.
They slept soundly.
For the next day and the next, they made slow progress towards the village. It had been called Telovska. It was near the river Lena. Telovska had been a fur trapping village for a couple of hundred years. It was one of the remote places that may have survived the general global collapse, as they were very tenuously connected in the first place.
The Space Station telescope could detect a clearing where Telovska had been but was not strong enough to see details, in the thick forest canopy.
It had been a wooden village with about 300 inhabitants. The people there used snow mobiles and chain saws but could have gone back to using dog sleds and axes, without skipping a beat.
Their trade in furs might have been abandoned to concentrate on fish and wildlife for subsistence.
They were located on the Lena River which was a tributary of the Yenisei River that was not radioactive from mining.
The Space Station crew decided it was a first rank possibility for continued survival. It was somewhere to go. It was number 22 on their entire list of possible landing targets.
Some of the other targets they knew were inhabited but problematic.
It was 150 miles to the East of the location of the escape pod. Each day they were only making 12 miles progress. It was because they were weak.
In fact it was not difficult terrain, not much elevation, no bogs or any tangles of undergrowth.
They decided to take a day off to rest and consider things, even though they had only been walking a few days.
Sam and Ivar gathered some fallen branches and logs and made a rough platform to sit and lay on. They had found a small trickle of water, which they tested and then purified.
Sam decided to make a small fire next to their platform. First he cleared an area down to the bare dirt and made a ring of dirt to form a shallow pit. He slowly broke up branches and leaves to find the most small bits and the most dry. He used the small knife in his survival kit to cut these up further. He shaved the dry wood into little curls, to ignite as tinder. Instead of using their electrical gear he used the fire starting rod and the back of his knife to make sparks.
It did not go easily but Sam was not in a hurry. He calmly struck showers of sparks into the wood curls tinder until be got a faint glowing spark to catch. He lifted it up and gently blew into the tinder until it smoked and then burst into a small flame.
Ivar called out “So good there, Sam you did it. You have made a fire!”
Sam added some small sticks and leaves to the little flame and it grew and he added slightly larger sticks and then even larger ones. There was no shortage of fallen wood all around. He filled the center of the fire pit with wood and stood up, pleased with this elemental success.
He said “We do not have anything large enough to boil much water in. Our chemical purification supplies will not last that long.”
Ivar just nodded his agreement. They were not well supplied for other than a brief survival situation. The assumption was that Space Station evacuees would be rescued fairly quickly. But that was a plan from another time.
Sam and Ivar felt good and ate some more of their rations and drank freely more of their water bottles fresh new contents.
It was a nice if warm day, under the forest canopy the suns rays were filtered and lessened. Doing nothing but watch the fire die down was very enjoyable.
They began to discuss what they would do if the village was there or not.
Sam put forward “We should be near the settlement in a while if nothing much changes. How should we approach it, Ivar? You are the one who really speaks Russian, though you have tried to teach me some. You will take the lead. So how are you going to play it?”
“I have no idea. Just see, I guess. For all I know they will kill us, immediately. Or they may be curious or whatever. The only thing I can guarantee, is our arrival will be sort of a dramatic event. There is no chance we will go unnoticed.” And then Ivar laughed.
Sam shook his head and laughed also. “What if the village is gone. What should we do? I know we have discussed this already but it feels different now that we are on the ground and moving toward it.”
Ivar posited “Well if it is abandoned, we should press on to the next place on our map. If it is deserted maybe there will be some things left and some shelter.”
“That is what we discussed earlier but I am asking something else. Now that we are here back on Earth what are we doing here if we are alone?”
Ivar laughed again “I see you are getting personal and philosophical, hey man, let’s forget the larger issues and just press on, OK Prince Mishkin?”
The afternoon turned into night and they did not talk anymore. Nor did they sleep they rested and listened to the night sounds of the forest and when light came got up ate and drank and moved further on their course.
Later that week they heard and then saw a moose in the distance. This made them consider that they could in fact survive here. But they had no way to dispatch such a large animal.
Near the estimated time of their arrival they found an abandoned hunters cabin fallen in and already stripped of useful items some time in the past. It was a human artifact and a most important sign.
They pressed on for two days and then Ivar smelled smoke and they moved forward cautiously. Then they heard faint voices and the laughter of children.
They stopped and did not take another step. But sat down and just listened more carefully than they had ever done in their lives.
After awhile Ivar stood up and held out his hand to Sam and helped him up and they walked forward towards the sounds.
Before they could see anything the village dogs began to bark and carry on. Every one near was aware that something was up from their canine signal.
They emerged from the forest onto a dirt road where the wooden houses began and people were out standing looking at them and the dogs, which were on chains were going crazy with alarm.
Several of the village people walked up to Sam and Ivar. Ivar spoke first ” We are so glad to see you, we thought we would perish in the forest if we did not find your settlement. I am Ivar Emitsov and this is Sam Paterson.”
He stopped to see if they understood him and allowed them to react. None of them said a word for a long time. At last one of the older women said “We have not seen an outsider in over….in many, many years. I am Maria Poriztenko, welcome Ivar and Sam.” She turned to the others gathered there and they began to hug and shake hands with Ivar and Sam.
A few of the children came up then and touched Sam and Ivar’s unusual clothes and made faces at them and laughed. It was the moment that the last two Space Station crew members, were no more.