The Sands of Phobos

A Cautionary Tale

Jack Rees

            Jake and Susan Lee huddled in the media room of their home in New Joplin. Neither could sleep. They were waiting.  Not for the cat five hurricane roaring in from the Arkansas coastline to blow over. The storms were getting to be old news. They both watched The Channel, hoping against hope that the screen would message them soon to say that their twins, Joshua and Samuel, were homeward bound. And that their four lives were not about to spiral into disaster.

            “I can’t sit here any longer.” Jake stood and walked to the central stair. “I’m going to check on the storm. Call me if you hear anything.”

            Susan smiled. It was a sad, half smile. He had come to know it well. He had spent every waking moment assuring her that the diabetes one was not her fault. It might have been a virus, there was no family history, no hint in her DNA. Yet Susan buried herself beneath a mantle of guilt. The cost of keeping her alive was soaking up every single credit they could earn. A new pancreas could have cured her overnight, but that was a cost only the Mega Rich could pay. They had hoped for a stem cell generated ‘faux pancreas’ in her abdominal cavity…but again Medical said they did not have the credits, it was for the Very Rich. As it was, Susan survived on seventy-five year old technology, an external computer that monitored her glucose and dispensed insulin.

            Jake stepped into the elevator in the center of their earth bag dome home. The floor above contained the living quarters and above that was the Grow Room. The house was just like thousands of others in New Joplin. All were dome homes mostly beneath the surface of the earth. The design was mandated after the insurance industry collapse, one cluster of powerful tornadoes too many throughout the mid-west, one catastrophic hurricane too many on the east coast. The Grow Room was where computers used an aeroponics system to produce basic vegetables and the host of medicinal herbs mandated by the Government. Artificial sunlight prolonged the growing cycle, except for the rare days weak sunlight would trickle through the transparent dome that crowned the home. Every home had a Grow Room and every householder was obligated to harvest and process the food and especially the medicinals. There were fines for failure to do so. It was irresponsible to become sick when preventive measures were available.

            The elevator stopped at a small observation platform at the crest of the dome. Jake could hear the roar of the wind and feel the vibration as the storm swept in from the south. He peered through the sheets of rain whipping over the surrounding countryside. Constant storms had stripped the Mid West’s earth bare except for grasses and small hardy shrubs. The air cleared between gusts of wind. The barren earth stretched for miles to the east. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, was the Mississippi. It was once a river, now more of an inland ocean. On its wasteland banks lived the poor and the hopelessly sick. They eked out an off-the grid life surviving on fish from the polluted waters and anything they could salvage from the ruins of the towns abandoned long ago by those with means.

            “Poor bastards!” Jake spoke quietly, a whisper hopefully unheard by the home sound system. He was startled as the sound system responded to the words. “Incoming video call for Mr. and Mrs. Lee…”  Jake returned to Susan. She was waiting, hands to her lips as if trying to hold back the fear of what might follow.

            “Sue, I’m sure the kids are fine, don’t think the worst ’till it happens!” They sat down on the couch in front of the media wall. It was already cycling through The Channel logo, boil water and air quality notices. The New Joplin Medical Center conference room faded from black. Both Jake and Sue gasped as they saw several men and women sitting at the table. Jake wrapped an arm around Susan, his chest tightening as he felt there was not enough air in the room. Their prayers for a quick message from a discharge nurse were not about to be answered.

            “The news is not good, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, but don’t be alarmed, we have a solution for you that can save Joshua and Samuel.” Jake felt Susan shrink and press into his body as she exhaled a low moan. Dr. Hernandez face was expressionless and Jake was surprised to see her in the company of others. In the past he had been sure she was an AI Android, perhaps even just a CGI.

            “I will explain the problem. Joshua and Samuel have been infected by a brain-eating amoeba, they must have been outside recently.”

            “Yes, they have. The temperature cooled to just below a hundred a few days ago. They went out to play in one of the local ponds.” Guilt started to fester in Jake’s stomach.

            “The source of the amoeba no doubt. No major damage has occurred yet. The amoeba has attacked their nervous systems. There is no damage to brain tissue. We can treat the problem, eradicate the infection and restore the nerve damage. Your boys will be completely healthy.”

            “Treat the problem? How?” Jake hugged Susan hard to his side. He could feel her silently sobbing.

            “Dr. Swenson here can create custom cells that are attracted to the amoeba, it’s called specific DNA signaling…anyway it means the cells seek out the amoeba and destroy them. One injection and both boys will be fine.”

            “It sounds awfully expensive.” Jake’s mind roiled with both hope and fear. Their two sons could be saved, but he and Susan could be separated and sent to Guest Worker Centers to pay off the debt. Many of the Rich were trapped by accident or illness that could not be paid with any amount of credits. The only solution was to refuse treatment, or spend months to years in Guest Worker Centers paying off the debt. In the old days they were called Labor Camps. Both he and Susan were caregivers in New Joplin’s main industry, one of the Retirement Centers for the ageing Very Rich. The work was bearable, made so by the occasional gifts of credits or luxury foods and medicines provided by Very Rich retirees in return for special services.

            The Guest Worker Centers were not so bearable. The few that returned had nightmare stories of six-hour work-days, forced recreation, re-education and exercise. The work was frightful. The ‘guests’ were used to process cadavers, human waste or the occasional animal. There were no wild animals left, other than exotic pets of the Very Rich. The Guest Workers would eat the occasional pony or dog, good meat compared to the usual daily fare in the Centers. Everything was processed by hand. Cadavers were de-boned for mineral recovery. Flesh was processed for oils, water and ‘recyclable protein.’ It was claimed that the factory grown ersatz red meat burgers in New Joplin’s Food Mart had a portion of ‘recyclable protein’ in them. A black joke surely. It was a fact that sanitized human waste was included in the mist blown nutrients fed through the city’s aeroponics Grow Room systems. The smell was undeniable.

            “There is a way for treatment to be provided at no cost.” The doctor’s voice broke through the Guest Worker Center nightmares. Both Jake and Susan sat forward, a glimmer of hope that the dark weight of the future could be lifted. “As you know, whenever treatment is rendered for the first time we are authorized to recover a DNA sample from every patient. When we entered the DNA data for your boys into the global database we received an alert from the IEA.”

            “IEA?” Jake already knew the answer, another glimmer of hope. He wanted the doctor to explain, to reassure Susan.

            “International Eugenics Agency, Mr. Lee. Their AI immediately authorized full treatment for Josh and Sam.”

            “Something good about their DNA?” Susan finally spoke, the hope, even relief in her voice was palpable.

            “Better than good, excellent. No indicators for future disease, every indication of longevity and superior physicality. Josh and Sam are exactly the kind of stock we need to produce future healthy and superior human beings.”

            Jake and Susan spared a glance at each other, relief already so evident in their faces.

            “You mention no cost. You mean nothing at all, no credits, no guest worker service? Nothing at all?”

            Dr. Hernandez motioned to a woman across the conference table. She was unusual for most ethnic types of the day, tall, blonde, very white skinned with bright blue eyes. Her features were sharp and angular, even stern. She smiled easily at Jake and Susan, her face starting to fill the wall-sized screen.

            “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, I am Ursula Hunter, a recruitment official for the IEA. We would like to bring Josh and Sam into the IEA development program. If you will sign an agreement with us to that effect, we will cover the cost of their current health needs. We will also cover their future healthcare costs.”

            Everyone had heard of the IEA’s ‘development program.’ No one knew for sure what it entailed, but the rumors ranged from simple collection of semen samples to the forced breeding of specially selected partners in places similar to Guest Worker Centers.

            “What exactly does that mean…’bringing them into the program’?” Susan did her best to disguise the tremor and the suspicion in her voice.

            Hunter smiled easily again and even managed a chuckle. “It doesn’t mean what you have probably heard. What we will do is work to see that Josh and Sam remain as healthy as possible in their future lives. They are both seventeen, academically gifted and – to that end – we would like to direct them in a way that will ensure careers and family lives that will benefit us all.”

            The view shifted to reveal the man sitting next to Hunter. He leaned forward, his unblinking gaze fixing on Jake. “This is where I can step in and help, Mr. Lee. I am Colonel McBride with OWSA, the Off World Service Agency. Your two boys are just the kind of guys we need in the service. There are a lot of wonderful opportunities for them. If you sign off with Hunter here, OWSA will get them into a university where they can train for any one of a dozen different careers off world.”

            Susan’s grip on Jake’s hand tightened. He pulled her a little closer. Everyone dreamed of an off world assignment. The credits were enormous, the food was amazing, healthcare was free and the work was easy depending upon where you worked. That was the good news. They both knew that the ‘offer’ in front of them meant that they were about to lose their children. They also knew that it was not an offer. They had little choice. The twins could die, or they could live while their parents spent decades in a Guest Worker Center.

            Hunter leaned back into view. “I would like to make one more suggestion that may help you to decide in our favor, Mr. and Mrs. Lee. It was your combined DNA that created these superior young men. You are not too old to have more children. If you agree, we will arrange for you to be exempted from the two-child restriction. We will arrange for Mrs. Lee to get a new pancreas. We will then move you both to a VR city in Colorado where you can get excellent healthcare and happily produce more children. As you can see we take the future of humanity very seriously. You and your offspring can play a very important role in rebuilding the coming race.”

            Jake squeezed Susan’s hand once more. This time it was a signal for caution. “Ms. Hunter, of course we will fully accept your offer. I am sure Josh and Sam will be thrilled at the prospect of off world careers.” He spoke carefully, hoping Susan would understand the new tone in his voice.

            Hunter’s expression changed, self-satisfaction oozing from a feint uptick in the corner of her mouth. “Very good. Your city attorney, Mr. Victor will process your agreement.”

            Victor’s face filled the screen. Each city had two attorneys, one for the Government and one for ‘the people’ as provided in the North American continental constitution. Victor smiled nervously as he operated controls on a console in front of him. “Please sit still, full face to the screen.” Jake and Susan sat upright. A green beam emerged from the center of the screen and scanned their faces. “Please sign, Mr. and Mrs. Lee.”

            Jake and Susan reached down to the arms of the sofa and placed their index fingers on a small pad.

            “Thank you, the document is signed and is now fully legal.”

            Hunter, McBride and Hernandez smiled as Victor left the room. “You will be hearing from us shortly. I suggest you start planning for your move to Colorado. Josh and Sam started their treatment several hours ago, so Dr. Hernandez here will have them on-screen in a few hours. Col. McBride will advise you later today on the off world assignments for Josh and Sam.” Hunter almost grinned as the screen went blank.

            “Careful!” Jake turned to Susan and whispered the word without moving his lips. Everyone suspected the sound and video systems in the dome homes. This was especially so just after a contract with Government. He then spoke normally. “Susan there is an awful lot of good to come out of this. Off world could mean NueLuna, one of the Moon settlements, maybe even one of the Mars colonies. And then there is your new pancreas, life in a VR city. Imagine it, better living in a secure city. No more caravans of the sick and poor from the wastelands begging for food and medicine.”

            Susan’s eyes were moist. She was on the verge of tears. “Yes, Jake, let’s do a search on the options.”

            Jake turned to the wall screen. “Search for careers on NueLuna, Moon Settlements and Mars Colonies.” The screen flashed white. The logo for GoogleGov faded in followed by a boolean search string.

            NueLuna was an artificial moon built in earth orbit at the L5 point. It was said the Mega Rich began planning the project and accumulating wealth to pay for it in 2020, shortly before the economic and climate collapse of the following decade. It was said to be heavenly. No images of life inside the planetoid were permitted. It fueled a massive service industry. The few remaining acres of arable land on Earth were used to grow organic vegetables and protected lamb, steer and cow herds. There was a steady traffic of goods and products on space elevators up to low Earth orbit. A secure shuttle service took everything to NueLuna. Specially selected couples were recruited from the Rich and Very Rich to be servants for the Mega Rich community. Others were engineers and environmentalists. Few ever returned to the surface.

            There were two Moon settlements. One was known simply as ‘The Bank.’ It was an underground facility dedicated to the acquisition and curation of existing and extinct food plant seeds, of extinct animal DNA, and digital files of approved books and art. It was considered the last safe place for the preservation of the greatest achievements of humankind. The inhabitants were curators, historians, biographers and the like. Service workers complained that it was like living inside a library. The other settlement was the Lunar Re-education Facility. LRF was a prison.

            The best careers were those supporting the Mars Colonization Project. It was still in its infancy, but everyone clamored for a chance to go. The cities on Mars were said to be havens of freedom of speech, of democratic self-government, of free wheeling trade and wealth building. Or so the recruitment programs put out by The Government said.

            The programs on the screen faded as McBride’s face came into view. “Mr. And Mrs. Lee, I have some exciting news for you. I have secured assignments for Joshua and Samuel Lee to the Mars Colonization Project. They will start their education in Golden, Colorado, not far from your new home. They will train as mining machine operators and will then be sent to Phobos.”

            “Phobos! Where is that? Not Mars?” Jake tried his best to temper the alarm in his voice.

            McBride partially suppressed a sigh. “Phobos is a small moon in low Mars orbit. It’s basically a pile of loose rock and sand. We mine it and package it in massive fiberglass containers. When the shuttles begin their descent to the surface the sand is used to absorb the initial high heat of re-entry. It’s called airbraking – by the time it burns off the hull of the shuttle can handle the remaining heat of the final descent stage. It’s a good job for the two boys. Phobos will be nothing but a sandy planetary ring in a few years. Then your boys will be allowed to join one of the surface colonies and IEA will find ideal partners for them.”

            Later that night Jake and Susan took off their communicators, climbed into their bed and pulled the heavy duvet over their heads. Free to speak, though still in hushed tones, they agonized over the day. “A lot of good has come of all this, Sue. Free healthcare!”

            “Jake, we are now breeders. What happens in ten years when I can no longer have children?”

            Above them the storm passed. For a few hours the smog and haze was blown away. NueLuna passed overhead, its crust of moon rock gleaming in the sunlight. Far away, the sands of Phobos burned with brilliant colors as a hundred colonists descended to a new life.