Author Topic: Part 4, Chapter 27  (Read 7462 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 4, Chapter 27
« on: June 10, 2022, 02:55:56 AM »
Part 4

Chapter 27

It started at exactly midnight, local time.

Most of Mumbai was asleep, unaware of the fundamental change happening all around them. Still, in a city that large there was an active night life, and a few people coughed once or twice as the catalyst wave swept through their area.

The change wasn't immediately evident in the morning either, especially to foreign visitors. For anyone who had lived in Mumbai for years, the first thing they noticed upon leaving their homes was a very fine dusting of white powder on the ground. The motion of early-moving cars had collected it in some places on the roads, where it was slightly more visible. Particularly keen observers noticed the same layer of faint powder inside their homes as well.

When the sun started making progress in its upward climb, the difference became more pronounced. The sky itself was clear! The thick layers of smog which had pervaded the city for decades.. were completely gone!

People wandered the streets at first, heedless of both their own safety and their daily schedules as they stared out at the sky. Birds which had flown their whole lives in the confined and choking space between buildings, were now lazily soaring far above, enjoying the view for the first time.

Eventually people returned to business as usual, but the change was all anyone could talk about. There was no official statement from Indian authorities, so speculation abounded all over the country. The world, too, after a few hours.

Power plants and industrial factories were still functioning. Fireplaces still churned out smoke. The emissions that had led to so much smog- and systemic breathing problems in so many people- were still there, but the smog itself was just gone.

Looking up at the sky, Vicky gave one of her rare smiles. Despite her misgivings about the plan, she had to admit the demonstration had been nothing short of astonishing!

Trying to focus, Vicky pulled out her phone and dialed the Ministry of External Affairs. "Minister Khatri. As you can see, it's a bright new day. I was hoping you could meet with me, and we could discuss how that happened."

-.-

The meeting was scheduled for that afternoon- probably an attempt by the minister to maintain an appearance of dignity in the face of seemingly impossible events. Frankly, Vicky knew how he felt. She'd seen Fai Tan's lab, and watched him assemble and explain the catalyzer, and it still seemed like it should be impossible.

Another bit of good news: Tom would be there for the negotiations. He spent most of his time in the States these days, trying to drum up support for various anti-hate-group bills. In the wake of the attack on the beach and the subsequent massive outcry against it, Humanity First had faded into the background, dialing back their hate-filled rhetoric. Tom seemed determined to keep them there. In fact, Vicky suspected he would like to take it even further.

Since the attack, the Coded Nation had made no demands for an investigation. It wasn't their way, despite how many people had died. Most uncoded people had no idea why, so Vicky had eventually been forced to make an other public statement.

"Justice means something different to us than it does to uncoded societies," she'd explained on camera. To you, it's about punishing those responsible. To us, it's about preventing the tragedy from happening again. We all know that punishment has never prevented fanaticism. In fact it usually has the opposite effect. Find the attackers if you want, and punish them if you want, but don't expect it to stop such attacks in the future."

Perhaps her statement had come across as overly morose, but at least she'd only had to make one. Still, a lot of the murdered kids had uncoded parents still living in the States, and they had insisted that the government punish the offenders.

After a reluctant investigation four people had been arrested, including Darren Hilke, the one who had remote-piloted the speedboat. He'd been on another tourist boat watching, and adjusting the course as it sped up. He was currently serving multiple life sentences in upstate New York. It was ironic that Darren- a private citizen who had chosen to be a terrorist- was being punished, while actual troops who had committed terrorist acts under orders from their superiors, were given medals and commendations. It was one of the reasons Scheria was now reaching out to other nations instead of the States.

After a heart-warming reunion outside Mumbai's MEA building, Vicky and Tom went up to meet the Minister. Raghav Khatri was almost exactly what Vicky had imagined from her phone conversations. He was middle-aged, partially balding, and a few pounds overweight. He was also dignified, polite, and apparently bursting with curiosity. It didn't take long for the pleasantries to end and the burning question on his mind to be spoken.

In answer, Vicky lifted her ancient backpack and opened it. She pulled the catalyzer out and set it carefully on the table. "This is a molecular catalyzer," she explained cheerfully. "In a nutshell, it separates oxygen from nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon in a small area around it, basically turning nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide into harmless dust." To demonstrate, she turned it on. The battery inside wouldn't last long, but it gave a hum as the catalyzer began drawing power.

The device itself was conical in shape, about a foot tall and half a foot wide at the base. Rings of metal surrounded the middle, reminding her a little of a tesla coil, but that was about the only familiar thing about it. Vicky had worked on electronic devices for most of her life now, and she had no idea how the catalyzer worked. It was the culmination of over seven years of sustained effort by Fai and dozens of other scientists. It had taken almost a fifth of Scheria's resources over those years, and a massive, constant effort to keep the secret this long. Now, finally, it was time to show the world just one of the things this catalyzer could do.

A faint glow started to appear at the top, and Vicky gestured to it. "Right now the catalyzer is trying to find compounds in the air to separate. If it found some, it would start a sort of chain reaction. One molecule would be separated, releasing particles that would separate another molecule, and another, and another.. you get the idea. The reaction can spread through a whole city in minutes, provided there's enough 'fuel' to separate and keep it going. That's what we did last night, and just look at this city today!" She gestured out the window. "Over 80 percent of the atmospheric contaminants are gone, fallen to the ground as dust."

Raghav looked a bit overwhelmed. "That one machine.. did all this? In just a few minutes?"

Tom nodded. "It wouldn't work a second time because there isn't enough air pollution left to start another chain reaction, but just imagine one of these in every city in India. Each one would go off every month or so, and clean the air up. Heart disease, strokes, pulmonary obstructions, lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis- all of them would be massively reduced. Over a million Indians die from diseases related to air pollution every year. This could change all that."

The minister was quiet for a few moments, staring at the catalyzer. "Once this.. wave gets far enough away from the city, it runs out of compounds to separate, and stops?"

Vicky nodded. "Just like a brushfire running out of fuel."

He hesitated, and then looked up at her again. "As I understand it though, smog is also made up of ozone, particulate matter, and organic compounds. Can your catalyzer separate those as well?"

Vicky exchanged a surprised look with Tom. They knew Raghav had a background in environmental science, but that had been years ago. Clearly, he'd kept up with it. "Not yet. We've only been able to safely separate oxygen from nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon so far. Splitting up ozone safely is a lot trickier, and I doubt we could do anything about the other compounds. Not for a while anyway. Our scientists are working on it, though. You have to admit that even for a prototype, the catalyzer is quite something."

Raghav nodded suddenly. "Of course. My apologies. It's just that seeing the future take shape before my eyes has me somewhat overwhelmed."

"I know the feeling, minister," Tom put in understandingly, reaching down to shut off the catalyzer. "I felt that way myself. Perhaps we should talk about what it would take to make these catalyzers freely available to your people. I think you'll find our requests reasonable, given what we're offering."

-.-

Tom and Vicky spent the flight home catching up again. It had been years since they'd spoken in person, and he could see the subtle changes in her stance and attitude.

The Vicky he remembered had been unsure of herself, and easily stressed out. Though eager and friendly, she had also carried an air of unease with her surroundings. Perhaps because she had moved so many times since first leaving for college.

This new version was more confident and a bit more reserved, as she'd demonstrated back in India. Though she was still technically just an ambassador for the Coded Nation, Vicky had clearly developed leadership skills. It was an impressive, and frankly sexy, transformation.

Tom clamped down on that thought right away. Even if he was coded, he couldn't go after her, or give any indication of that interest. He didn't want to trample on Amir's memory, and even more importantly, risk his friendship with Vicky.

During the trip, Vicky described some of the unique situations arising from starting a new country. Nationality was the most obvious hurdle. There was now a coded nationality, and all coded people had it automatically. Unlike the States, where gaining citizenship could take decades, for them it was just the surgery itself. In fact, a lot of the people living in Scheria and Elysia had legally given up their home country's citizenship. Whether that was a statement of principle, for some unknown legal situation, or the result of something else was a mystery. Tom suspected the reasons were pretty evenly spread out.

One coded person hadn't given up American citizenship, though. "I was sorry to hear about Angie," Tom said regretfully.

"Thanks. I haven't heard from her in months, and I guess I don't expect to."

After losing Max and Joey, Angie had pretty much fallen apart. She had a massive support network around her- thousands of people who considered her to be part of their family- but it hadn't been enough. According to Vicky's emails, she had eventually asked that her code be turned off, and moved back to the States. For all Tom knew, she was dead in a ditch somewhere.

What made some people able to stand up and live again after trauma like that, while others crumbled like Angie? Tom had wondered about that for a long time.

Vicky also described various legal situations, especially between the Coded Nation and the States. Property disputes were the easiest to fix of course, but legal unions were a much stickier problem. As usual most coded people just ended up returning to their previous lives, but for a married person who got coded, and then decided to stay in Scheria or Elysia.. it was a different matter. What happened to the spouse left behind in those cases, or any kids? How was alimony or child support decided between nations, if one nation believed in currency and the other didn't?

It had taken years, but eventually the US and other nations had adjusted annulment laws to allow for newly coded residents to dissolve previous unions if they wanted to. There had even been a case where two people had been unable to divorce their previous spouses, and had gotten coded to take advantage of that loophole. Their relationship hadn't worked out, probably because they'd gotten coded for all the wrong reasons, but Tom was sure there would be other cases like it in the future. As for the kids, sometimes they stayed on the islands- in new creche facilities which had been built further inland.

The kids themselves were an interesting outgrowth of those legal challenges. Despite Abner Geller's initial objections, both cities had started adopting kids from other countries. Both creches had been filled almost immediately, and the Need Board had been adjusted with hundreds of new child-care tasks. Each so-called orphan had a support system in the creche filled with people who cared for and loved them.

Tom hadn't actually heard much about that, so Vicky explained it further. "When someone in the creche reaches 21, they can't stay, but of course they don't want to go. We have problem kids of course, but you should see some of the caregivers we've got working there! Straight-up amazing," she commented admiringly, showing a bit of a flashback to her earlier, overeager self.

"We decided to follow the Amish example after a while. When their kids reach a certain age, they are sent away, into the 'outside world'. It's called Rumspringa, and it's been an Amish tradition for a long time. The kids get a taste of what the rest of the world is like, and then they choose whether or not to come back. No judgements, no recriminations. It fit with us pretty well, so our kids can leave as early as 18, and if they come back and are at least 21, we can evaluate them for coding."

Tom frowned. "Is it safe to just send them out, though? I'm sure they're very well educated, but coded life doesn't exactly prepare people for uncoded life. Depending on how long the kid's been there, he or she might have no experience at all with things like deceit and manipulation."

"You're right: it is a concern. Usually we send them to stay with coded people living in the States or Canada. That way they're not diving into the deep end before they learn how to swim. They're encouraged to find jobs, make social connections with other uncoded people, and feel it out to see if that life is something they want."

That made some sense. "What about experiencing other faiths? I know there are churches, mosques, synagogues, shrines and the like in Scheria. Are the kids brought there from the creches? Is there anything like a coded baptism, or circumcision for that matter?"

Vicky shook her head. "We had a bunch of meetings about that just as the new creches were being built. Naturally the code won't let us circumcise anyone. The rest of it was decided by majority vote. We can teach the kids the basics of all religions, but we can't encourage any one religion over any others until after they've reached 21. So, no child baptisms, bar or bat mitzvahs, nothing like that." She looked fatigued all of a sudden. "Those debates went on and on for weeks! I mean, it's easy to coexist with other faiths when you know the code will keep them from hurting you, but knowing what to teach your children? We still haven't worked it all out."

Tom tried to think about it as if he'd been there. "I guess a school curriculum wasn't easy to figure out either?"

"It was a nightmare! I mean flat earthers and anti-vaxxers are easy to dismiss, but what can we do when two coded people genuinely believe two different historical accounts, and each wants those accounts taught? I was there for some of the earlier meetings. These were experienced teachers arguing, and I saw their codes activate again and again, just during the talks! Imagine how much worse it could have been without the codes."

"Without the codes, you wouldn't have a society at all," Tom reminded her, and she gave a reluctant shrug.

That reminded him of Abner Geller's statements, years ago. "I still can't believe your people still support Abner as their Servant," he grumbled, and then immediately regretted it. For all he knew, Vicky supported the man.

She only raised an eyebrow. "I think you're being a bit harsh there, Tom," she said gently. "I had my doubts at first too, but he's proven to be a good fit. Different than Holly was of course, but he knows how to inspire and motivate coded people through his example. There's more than one way to lead."

"He thinks of uncoded people as children, though," Tom protested, now that he was more sure he wasn't going to offend her. "He convinced your people to stay out of the United Nations, and I'm sure this trade of the catalyzer technology for resources was his idea."

There was more he could say, but Tom held back. In addition to his political efforts to dismantle Humanity First, Tom had also kept an eye on Abner's comings and goings. Before he'd become Servant, he had made multiple trips to the mainland. From what Tom and his PI had uncovered, each time he'd met with various wealthy businessmen and politicians. Tom still had no idea what those conversations had been about, but he sure didn't trust Abner's new 'partners'.

Tom wasn't concerned that Abner's actions might hurt the Coded Nation, but he clearly hadn't told anyone about those actions either.

"Well maybe he has a point about uncoded people," Vicky responded evenly. "I know a lot of you aren't like that, but enough are. They've lied to us, stolen from us, killed us, and all because they don't understand that we're no threat to them. Sounds pretty childish to me. As for the UN, we go to great lengths to stay on their good side, despite never joining up. That way we can influence their policies by example only. You can convince someone to be better, or you can force them, but the only lasting way is to be an example of a better way and hope that they follow your example."

She sighed. "As for the catalyzer deal, I did vote against that. You know how I felt about the BT102 and the codes later on. I was outvoted though, and we really do need those resources. Plus there is the added benefit of wiping out large chunks of air pollution every month or so. Besides, from what we can tell, they're only a few years away from developing their own catalyzers, and we can get a lot of goodwill if we give it to them now."

Tom smiled grimly. "Minister Khatri's gonna be pretty pissed when he finds out what you have planned. So will the rest of the Indian government, I bet."

"Oh, no doubt. But we'll wait until the details of our deal are made public. That way they can't back out."

Tom shook his head. The deal itself had been pretty simple: schematics and details on the catalyzer in exchange for raw materials, mostly iron and steel. What they didn't know was that once news of the deal got out, the Coded Nation planned on giving the catalyzer to every nation at the same time, giving no one the advantage.

There would definitely be fireworks when that happened. Tom supposed he should be afraid about that, but he wasn't. Strangely, he was looking forward to seeing how it all played out.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 04:23:53 AM by Daen »