In a Climate Changed World: Chapter 4 – by Andy Silber
March 4th, 2055
Yucca Mountain, Nevada
I love when it’s my turn to do security detail, especially when my shift falls at night. I get to come outside; see the stars and the mountains silhouetted against the moonlight, breath the fresh mountain air. There are always three security guards up here, as befitting an abandoned federal facility, it’s just not always the same three people. Not that there’s anyone to watch us, except maybe a Chinese satellite. We’re surrounded by a hundred miles of desert in every direction. Even the nearest city, Las Vegas, is a shell of its former self. I guess everyone finally realized a city with no access to water just wasn’t a great idea, though there still is a market for “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, maybe even more than when that slogan was created before I was born.
We had volunteered for the MEP, and we knew that meant living in caves for the foreseeable future, but there’s something different about living underground on another planet (an adventure) and living underground in Nevada in holes meant for nuclear waste (a drag). In retrospect, I wish I had never learned that part of the MEP mission was to hide the development of this base; recruitment and procurement were folded into the MEP not to raise suspicions. Bill and I were doing great in the training for Mars and they loved his engineering background. I thought my background, a PhD in political science and history, was pretty lame. When halfway through the training we were called into an office we had never seen to talk to people we had never met, we thought we had washed out. In fact, they loved my background and the fact that we were both only children and our parents had passed on (fewer people to ask questions when we disappeared). I suspect that we were slotted for this program before we even were accepted into the MEP. We were only told that it was a critically important mission, very secret and if we went forward with it, then it was for life with no way out. So we bit and we were whisked off to a new site to continue our training.
Putting the base at Yucca Mountain was a flash of brilliance. There was already all of infrastructure here, just waiting to be used. By design, it was a place far from habitation, allowing the base to remain secret. The biggest concern is that there would be a change of heart about storing nuclear waste here as the fission reactors were mothballed, having been made obsolete by the fusion reactors. A group was funded to push for dry cask storage at the site of the decommissioned power plants or regionally, the argument being that most of the risk was during transportation and that dry cask storage is a fully developed technology and allows us to mine the nuclear waste for valuable isotopes at a later date if so desired. Everyone now has bigger fish to fry, but I do worry that some of this waste will be mishandled and end up creating an enormous mess as things fall apart.
We’ve been here for 20 years, and I’m still not entirely sure what our mission is. Are we one of those monasteries at the edge of Europe that protected the books and knowledge of classical Greece and Rome during the dark ages? Are we mission control? If so, what’s the mission we’re controlling and to whom are we giving orders? We’re connected to all of the major fiber connections, but they’re becoming less reliable due to almost non-existent maintenance. What communication that remains is either satellite or more likely AM or shortwave radio. Ham radio geeks are suddenly in big demand. We monitor all of these channels with receivers across the country to understand what’s going on. There are a few people who come and go and bring back first hand reports, but I expect that most of us will spend the rest of our lives here. In a way, we’re even more isolated than the Martians.
I’m part of a large team that pours over all of those feeds and tries to understand what the political status of the USA is. Where is the power, who has control of what territory, where is the government weak and where is it strong. The Greenland ice sheet only lasted four years after the ICE3 project shutdown, less time than anyone expected. With seas now 10 meters higher than mean sea level in 2000, every coastal city was at risk. When hurricane Rodolfo hit DC at high tide and overwhelmed the sea walls in 2051, the federal government nearly collapsed. The importance of states and especially the cities has been growing in that vacuum. Most of the rural areas in the southeast are in anarchy, ruled by mobs and malaria. The country has become a weak confederation of city-states. I think back 40 years to the Tea Party; that this is their ideal, with everyone more self-reliant (or dead) and no fear that the government is going to take away their guns. No one is complaining about federal taxes, since they aren’t able to collect. The federal government still has some income from leases and fees, but it’s about as close to bankrupt as could be, without filling any paperwork. And who could they file with anyway. Grover Norquist’s dream to be able to drown the federal government in a bathtub has been realized. I just hope they have a chance to decommission all of the nuclear weapons before that actually happens.
All of this chaos out there, does make me glad to be here, safe and sound, in our underground prison. Bill is busy creating an encrypted, high-efficiency, long-distance radio. I believe the signal skips of the ionosphere, or something like that. Our daughter Cecily just turned 15 and is your normal teenage girl. She’s moody and wants to rebel, but life here is so regimented that there’s very little space for that. She’s never known a life other than the base, and for that I feel constantly guilty. But when I read the reports from elsewhere, I’m not sure we didn’t do the right thing. She’s smart, but artsy (I have no idea where that came from) in a world with very little beauty. I think she feels it’s her job to paint an ironic bird on everything. Doubly ironic, since she’s never seen a bird.
The reports from Mars make me very jealous for those who got to go. Life is hard there, but they now have a thin oxygen environment. Not enough to go without a rebreather for more than a few minutes, but it is amazing progress in just over 20 years. The population is growing and there’s talk of relaxing the one-child policy, but that probably won’t happen until the atmosphere is thick enough to live on the surface full time. Even then they’ll need solar-storm cellars, since the lack of a planetary magnetic field will always make Mars a dangerous place to live, even with a thick atmosphere.
My shift is almost over. I take as deep a breath as I can. I’ve already requested to do my next shift, in three months, with Cecily. It will be her first time above ground. She’s seen photos and movies, but her eyes have never focused on infinity. I can’t imagine what that will be like for her, but I want to be there and see the world through her eyes. She pretends to be blasé about it, but I know she can’t wait. There’s a whole big, scary world out there for her and I can’t imagine what the future has in store for her. In the meantime, I go back down into my hole to pour through radio transcripts and satellite feeds.
I’m trying something different than my previous blog posts here. Rather than describing current technologies or policy questions or what I think we should do, here I’m delving into speculative fiction: what do I think might be in store for us if we continue on our current path. This is definitely not a best case scenario, but I don’t believe it’s the worst case either. On a scale of 1 (your grandchildren are going to live in a world that resembles “The Road” ) and 10 (Technology will save the day and it’s not too late), I’d probably give this a … now that would be a spoiler.
I’m writing this in installments in the spirit of Dickens and Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”. Unlike them, I’m not a great writer, so I don’t expect to win a Nobel, Pulitzer, Hugo or a Newbery. But maybe this will be made into a mini-series on SyFy. Also, for fans of classic science fiction, I’ve thrown in some references or out-right theft.
I hope you enjoy the first piece of fiction that I’ve written that wasn’t assigned in school. – Andy Silber