Element Fixer

The following is a work of science fiction. This is experimental for me.


Element Fixer

 “If this is successful, we’ve got it!” proclaimed an exuberant Roberts, clapping his hands.

“Chamber is secured,” said Kingly in a matter-of-fact voice. “Complete vacuum inside chamber.”

“No one break the seal until I give the word,” shouted Roberts. “At the first sign of anything abnormal, I want to know about it!”

Large red numbers that would begin counting upwards when the experiment commenced displayed 00:00 on a digital clock above the main screen. Twenty-three scientists intently went about their assigned duties at their monitors, yet still watched the main screen, something they would continue to do until the experiment completed. Sweaty, nervous palms punched buttons, and nervous beads of perspiration formed on the foreheads of many.

None was more nervous than Roberts. The whole project germinated from his brain, and success here would have a profound effect upon solving the world’s incessant problems of hunger for a couple billion people. The Element Fixer, as those involved called it, utilized engineered microbes to makes plants absorb whatever nutrients were available—even if the only ones available came from the air—and cause them to grow at an accelerated rate in environments previously unfit for crops. This would provide people with the ability to produce food nearly anywhere on the planet that contained soil—good soil, rocky soil, poor soil, it made no difference. Roberts even proclaimed that people would be able to grow crops in pure sand. He and his colleagues had spent over five years working together in this facility, and now came the climactic moment.

“Introduce subjects,” ordered Roberts.

A door about three feet tall and three feet wide slid open on a wall of the chamber, producing a loud swoosh as air filled it. A robotic cart carrying different types of vegetation in buckets of soil wheeled into the room. After placing the plants on the floor, the cart exited through the same door, which closed.

“Evacuate room again,” said Roberts.

After 15 seconds, Kingly replied, “Chamber once again secured. Complete vacuum.”

A one-foot cube also sat inside the chamber, on the far side of the room in the corner. It had a mechanical arm attached at one side.

“Introduce pure oxygen,” ordered Roberts.

“Oxygen introduced,” replied Brown, sitting in the second row, and the group heard a hissing sound inside the chamber again. After 30 seconds he added, “Oxygen saturation level complete.”

“Let’s begin. Raise Fixer panel,” said Roberts.

“Arm engaged…panel rising,” said Lewis, the scientist staffing a console closest to Roberts.

When Lewis gave the command to raise the panel the display began counting upward.

“Everybody make sure you are recording data,” said Roberts nervously. “Whether this works or something goes wrong, we’ll want to analyze everything.”

The mechanical arm completely removed the panel from the cube. Within a few seconds, the vegetation changed, growing larger and blooming in front of the scientists’ eyes. Roberts laughed heartily and said, “It’s working! Everyone watching? It’s working, just as we had projected, maybe better!”

The group stared at the screen for a number of seconds in silence, and then the scientists began congratulating each other and slapping one another on the back, proclaiming relief after all the hard work they had invested in the program.

The clock continued to run and all completed their assigned tasks, monitoring readouts of instruments. Occasionally Roberts issued an order to individuals or requested specific information. The plants continued to grow and became larger mature ones. Those plants which produced fruit naturally developed fruit within 15 minutes. Roberts and his staff were ecstatic.

At the 23:18 mark, one of the controllers, Walters by name, uttered a curse, and heads turned in his direction. At that same moment, the scientists heard a low hum, which lasted for about two seconds.

“What happened?” demanded Roberts. “Did something go wrong?”

Walters replied, “Yes. It was something I did—accidentally. I don’t know what effect it might have.”

Roberts looked panic-stricken. “What did you do? Tell me!”

Walters hesitated before speaking. “I—I introduced low-spectrum light into the chamber. Near the bottom of the spectrum. I caught it immediately, but I think we had a 1 ½ to 2 second exposure.”

Roberts barked orders. “Shut it down! Shut it down now! Everyone secure data.”

“Look!” said Kingly, pointing at the screen.

“No!” yelled Roberts. “No! They can’t be! They’re withered…useless…dead,” he moaned, staring at the remains of the recently thriving vegetation. Then, as all gazed in dismay, they witnessed the plants dissolving into fine dust.

“Meeting in an hour in the conference room,” said Roberts despondently after a couple of minutes of silence by everyone. “Bring your data. We’ll evaluate the viability of the project up to the light introduction, and analyze how the light made the difference. Or, who knows, maybe we’ll find out the light had nothing to do with it.”

Half an hour later a knock on his office door interrupted Roberts as he was making notes. “Yes? Come in,” he said.

Kingly barged in. “There’s something you’ve got to see,” he said, breathing heavily. “In the control room.”

Roberts demanded to know more, but Kingly ignored him and ran to the control room, where a few of the scientists had congregated and were staring at the monitor. Roberts peered at it for a few moments before he asked what happened.

Kingly spoke. “That was Phillips. He went in there after we had evacuated the chamber then re-filled it with standard air. Smithers was working the controls when it happened.”

Kingly summoned Smithers.

“Tell me what you saw,” said Roberts.

“It happened almost instantaneously,” said the other scientist. As soon as he opened the door, he stumbled and fell into the room. In a matter of seconds he disappeared—dissolved, and all that’s left is the dust you see there.”

“Did you take precautions immediately?”

“Yes. Shut the door, and evacuated and sealed the chamber. There was nothing that could be done for Phillips. Door was open just a few seconds, three or four at the most.”

Suddenly a look of horror shot across Roberts’ face. “Where did you evacuate the contents to? Not to the outside atmosphere, I hope.”

“No, sir. Holding tank number three.”

Roberts convened a meeting with the group, poured over the data, and discussed the possibilities about what had gone wrong. After this meeting, he met again with the four senior scientists on the project, and two hours later he requested the president send his senior military officer and whoever was in charge of the national space agency.


Within an hour the military chief of staff arrived, General Moore. The national space agency director, Dunkirk, came a half hour after that.

Roberts explained the project, about which each had heard, and the hypothesis of what caused it to run afoul and the effects it produced.

“I’ll explain in simplified form, but basically our project caused elements to be “fixed” so they could be best assimilated by vegetation. If you want to look at it one way, you could say that we had found a way to separate elements from compounds so the plants could use them directly. The project had been making excellent progress, and this was in actuality our final experiment before implementation in the world.

“Someone introduced an unintended factor by exposing the chamber to low-spectrum light, a part of the band not found in our world. We’re thinking this exposure somehow mutated our microbe and it took on completely different characteristics. The plants died, and when a person went into the room, he perished as well, in the same manner as the plants did.”

“So what is it?” inquired General Moore. “Has it become radioactive?”

“No, we don’t think that’s it. One of my colleagues, Kingly, has a theory which fits the data we collected, although we can’t explain why the light exposure caused the mutation. Kingly’s theory, and one I’m inclined to agree with until something else gives a better explanation, is that somehow our microbe mutated into an oxygen consuming engine.”

“Oxygen consuming?” said Dunkirk.

“Sounds unbelievable, but that’s what we think,” replied Roberts.

“Then that poses some real problems,” said General Moore.

“Yes,” said Roberts. “Some serious problems. Problems that threaten the existence of every living thing on the planet. Oxygen consuming, as in it can render, so to speak, oxygen out of any compound and consume it. I know that’s against the laws of physics, but we’re talking about something beyond the realm of our knowledge of physics. What container can we isolate this microbe in? Is there anything we have that in some way does not have oxygen in any of its compounds? Not too many. And if it escapes into the atmosphere? Our world would be annihilated in short time, hours or less. Our soil would be consumed, our water would be consumed, our breathing air would be consumed.”

“Where is it now?” asked Dunkirk.

“In a vacuum tank. Apparently being in a vacuum makes it inert or dramatically slows it down, like heat speeds up the motion of molecules and absence of heat slows them down. We’ll monitor the tank and see if there is any sign of decay. If so, we’ll have to find some way to transport it to another tank.”

The military took charge of the crisis, with General Moore in command. He employed Roberts and Kingly as top advisers, and Roberts’ team to handle the practical matters of the planet-threatening microbe.

General Moore also had a private meeting with Roberts.

“This is not a good time to bring this up—I don’t believe there ever will be a good time,” began the general. “I’m not chiding you, but you know you’re going to have to answer to these things eventually. What was your reason for creating this? Oh, I know, to benefit the people of the world. That’s not what I’m asking, and you know it. I’m asking the bigger questions. It has been a matter of scientific and even public debate for a few decades about engineering life. How could we possibly know the consequences of seemingly miniscule changes to something that you probably couldn’t see without an electron microscope anyway? Are we in a position, scientifically and morally, where we can go out and do these things with impunity?

“What about military uses? As far as I know the military has limited knowledge about it, other than the top members, and even what they know they’re not correct about. But what if a weapon was made of it? The whole world could be gone in a few minutes, just like it appears to be going now. Or what if we get a handle on it and use it beneficially for years, then some crazy leader gains control of it, one who doesn’t care about life? Poof! Everything’s gone.

“Sometimes you scientists are naïve in your beliefs. You see the potential for only good, and you refuse even to consider other things that could happen other than what you’d planned for. You remind me of people who go climbing up sheer cliffs in the mountains, or pull some extreme sport stunts, not considering the consequences if something goes wrong. Then when disaster strikes, they call for somebody else to come clean it up or rescue them, and they don’t even consider the cost of cleanup or the damage they do to people or the damage they inflict on those who survive.

“Like I said, the milk’s spilt already, and I’m not calling you to task for it—not yet anyway. I only thought you should think about what’s happened here because it could be all over for us and you might want to wrestle a little bit with your conscience before the end comes, if indeed it is coming.”

Roberts had heard these questions before and ignored them. He had been convinced his motives were correct, so he had deflected all media questions or governmental concerns for years. Sure, he and his colleagues had discussed possibilities, but they considered these extremely remote. At this moment his main hope concerning these questions was that he would find himself one day sitting nervously across from a committee and having to provide answers.

A seal at the top of the tank began showing signs of slow deterioration after two days. Roberts calculated they had three more days until the microbe would breach the seal. He suggested they find another container in which to put the tank, and create another vacuum inside of it should the seal give way. That was something that could not be maintained indefinitely, so Roberts told General Moore that the world had, in his estimation, 26 days to find a solution, to remove the microbe from the planet, or else it would perish, and all living things with it.

Dunkirk summoned a team from the space agency, and they devised a plan to rid the world of the microbe. If the agency could prepare an unmanned rocket to launch in the safety window time, the microbe could be sent into the vacuum of space, where, even if it were to be released, should guarantee the survival of the planet.

The group worked feverishly. Roberts monitored the tank and informed General Moore and Dunkirk of the progress the microbe made on the seal. The space agency transported the tank, along with the outside tank Roberts had suggested, to the launch area in preparation for the anticipated flight.

Time was very short, however, and Dunkirk told Roberts and General Moore that the launch possibly might not occur until there were mere hours or even minutes remaining. The government did not inform the population or any other governments of the threat to the world, so people continued about their day-to-day chores. Meanwhile, the government made preparations in case the rocket launch failed, but Roberts knew any plans were futile. A failed launch, or a tardy launch, meant death to the planet.

The scientists, the military, and the space agency personnel worked impatiently, attempting to see the plan to fruition.

“I don’t believe we’re going to make it,” said Roberts to General Moore a few days before the potential last day of the world. “It takes a whole lot to send a rocket into space, more than 26 days, anyway.”

“They’re ignoring standard precautions,” replied the general. “Why take all the precautions and lose days or a week. It won’t do them any good to have everything lined up perfectly if the world’s dead.”

When the final day arrived, the people working on the project had been four consecutive days without sleep. Roberts said that if this did not work, everyone would be sleeping permanently.

The rocket stood on the launch pad. Workers had carefully loaded the tanks in the payload area. The seal on the inside tank had failed many days previously, and according to Roberts’ calculations, the outer tank’s seal would do the same within two hours.

In the launch control room, engineers in charge of different parts of the operation begged for more time. Dunkirk viciously rebuked them, telling them to go with what they had and not to make the request again.

“We must launch within the hour!” he yelled into his headset. “Anyone who can’t be ready by then, tell me now and I’ll get someone to replace you. We launch in an hour!”

“That only leaves us 48 minutes,” murmured Roberts to Kingly. “Even if they launch in an hour, if the seal breaches while the ship is still in the atmosphere, it’s all over—life is over. “They must get it up.”

An hour passed, then another 20 minutes.

“Start the countdown!” ordered Dunkirk.

“How long will this take?” asked General Moore of Roberts.

“Fifteen minutes, assuming there’s no holds.”

“That cuts us down to 13 minutes,” said Kingly, shaking his head.

A warning light flashed and a buzzer sounded. A problem with an ignition sequencer made it impossible to continue the countdown, so Dunkirk ordered it on hold. A computer restart for that system synchronized all the systems again, but there remained only four minutes.

“Roberts spoke to Dunkirk via the headset, “Can’t stop any more. The next stop everybody on the planet dies.”

With 25 seconds remaining before lift off a technician begged Dunkirk to hold, but the director ignored the request. “Put me on speaker so everyone can hear,” he ordered. Then at the 10 second mark he counted audibly, “10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…go, go, go, go, go!”

Slowly the rocket lifted off the pad, and then climbed through the atmosphere. Among the cheers of “Fly!” and “Go, go!”, Roberts bit his lip, hoping against all hope. It must leave the atmosphere before the seal breaches, he thought. Only the vacuum of outer space will do. There the metabolism of this thing will drop to nearly nothing and the ship will coast endlessly. Then loudly he yelled, “Go! Go! Fly!”

The rocket propelled the small capsule beyond the atmosphere, then next stage engines propelled it to a velocity where it would escape the world’s gravity, and finally the planet was safe.

General Moore approached Roberts and grabbed him by the shoulders, and then looked him in the eyes. “Destroy the notes, destroy all data, destroy everything about your…project,” he said. “There are no hands in this world that can handle it safely, but who would only destroy us. We’ve been rescued at the last minute. This cannot happen again.”

Roberts merely nodded his head.

The tiny capsule moved through space. Roberts could not guess how many years it would continue on its journey. He hoped a star would suck it in, but he could not know whether that would destroy it or not. Maybe the light energy emitted by the star would cause another mutation, this one even worse and more destructive. Perhaps a piece of space rock would crash into it and end its existence.

The capsule had a trajectory that headed it towards another star system billions of miles distant. Perhaps it would take 1,000 years to reach, maybe even longer. If it remained on course, eventually it would cross paths with another planet full of oxygen and teeming with life on land, air, and in the water. The inhabitants of this place had at least a millennium to prepare if the capsule maintained its heading, but they were unaware they needed to do so. They loved their home, this bluish sphere they called Earth.

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