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Raw Terra

by Nick Pollota

„Ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost there!“ Erik Kaye cried into his hand-held mike, while hanging out the open window of the antique-style train engine.

The cool Titan wind whipped his curly gray hair into a wild frenzy, totally unlike the usual neat perfection his billions of TriD viewers were familiar with, and for the first time in his life, Kaye didn’t give a good goddamn. They were going to make it! This was the story of the year! Hell, the decade! If only he knew what it was.

Alongside him in the cabin was Dr. Alice Bentley, a pretty brunette in a lab jumpsuit typing madly on her wrist secretary with one hand, a computer stylus clamped tight between clenched teeth. Behind the scientist was Sergeant Vladimir Zane, a stout United Planets police officer nervously fondling his service laser, rigidly formal in his stark white uniform, the red and blue emblem of this independent colony emblazoned on a shoulder. Filling the fore of the open cabin was a rocky gray bipedal mountain, whose nimble alien hands frantically worked the controls of the rumbling steam engine. Birth name: (assorted grunts, snorts and a rude flatulent noise), social name: Rocky. Which was the equivalent of calling an Irishman ‚Red‘ or an African pygmy ‚Shorty‘. Not quite exactly an insult, but hardly original thinking for the alien Rigellian.

Adjusting the gain on his transceiver, Erik sighed internally. These four were the only ones to brave this final leg of their perilous, historic, journey. A mere four out of the trillions filling the Sol system. That didn’t say much for courage and dedication of the average UP citizen. Then again, it was sweeps week on the TriD, and saving the world was hardly a match for Nude Celebrity Mud Wrestling. Art will always triumph.

Rat-a-clack, rat-a-clack, the iron wheels of the environmentally correct locomotive clattered over every rail joint of the Earth-sized moon of Saturn as the convoy steadily built speed, bio-degradable black smoke pouring from the tall fluted chimney. The ringed glory of their gas giant mother world filled the horizon. On either side of the rattling train were the ragged cliffs of a low ravine, an arroyo actually, although few folk knew the word these days. But the shame of modern education was next week’s story. The terraforming of Titan had started 100 years ago, and today was its ultimate culmination. If only they could crash this train into a toxin polluted lake before they were all killed by accidents or terrorists.

Saturn, your vacation wonderland. Whee.

„Dr. Bentley, how’s it going?“ Kaye asked, holding a hand at the floating HoverCam before him to signal a break in the story flow.

Her long hair an auburn Medusa’s nest, Alice glanced up from her wrist work. „Statistically, the events plaguing us have almost exceeded any possibility of random causation and risen to the mathematical point of certainty,“ she shouted.

In the far distance, something exploded in the gray sky with violent results above the mountainous Titan garbage dump.

„Yeah, well statistics will only help you so much against anti-personnel Gotcha! missiles,“ Sgt. Zane remarked, flicking his gun safety off and on nervously.

A rocky smile from the inhuman pilot. „At least the protective umbrella from the Titan Defense Corp is still in operation. We’re not dead yet, officer!“

„Ah, ‚yet‘ being the operative word, citizen.“

At their feet, the train engineer and chief technician of the scientific project snored peacefully on top of each other. Both of their PocketDocs had mysteriously given them a massive overdose of ‚Don’t Worry, Be Sleepy!‘ tranquilizers just as the train was going around Deadman’s Curve. They should have crashed, just another amazing coincidence in an endless stream of them. And they would have died, if not for the timely intervention of Rocky, a tourist

who had inadvertently gotten on the wrong train.

Plus, the assistant train engineer had never shown up. All the doors, windows and the garbage chute at his home bizarrely jammed this morning and after he managed to wiggle through the doggie door, his car wouldn’t start from the relatively simple, but unsolvable problem, that its entire engine had been removed by thieves during the night.

Curls to the wind, Erik snorted. Thieves his butt! The reporter had no damn idea who their unseen enemy was, but they really gave a new definition to the word ‚persistent‘ and added a few lines to the description of ‘ruthless’. Webster and Roget would have been proud of them. Just before they shot the bastards. Whoever the nameless enemy was.

At the broom-handle throttle, cramped in the small human size control booth, two meters of scaled alien muscle and living granite fingers nimbly operated the iron control rods and wheels with a surgeon’s delicacy. Or to be more precise, the knowledgeable touch of a being that loved machines.

Dressed only in a bulging tool belt and pre-space aviator scarf, the Rigellian tourist had been pressed into service as the improvised chauffeur of the 100 ton train by Bentley and Zane when the railroad engineers had resigned from the job by hitting the floor and snoring in stereo. Although not specifically interested in this human endeavor, saving a world was a noble deed! Besides, (assorted snorts, grunts and a rude flatulent noise) was getting paid by the hour for the task.

Jammed into the back of the cabin so it would have enough room for a good picture was a flying ceramic egg; aerials, antennas and an array of telephoto lenses covering the exposed surface. A ‘Menkin’ class HoverCam floated effortlessly above the shoulder of Erik like the hologram parrot of a cyborg pirate. The effect was augmented by the fact that one of the three lenses of the Toshiba camcorder was broken recently by shrapnel from an inexplicably exploding film vending machine and the TBBC news reporter had temporarily covered the cracked glass with a tiny eye-patch.

Why would anybody want to stop a reclamation project?

„Gods above and below!“ Rocky cursed, thumping on unbreakable gauges and thus proving the manufacturer’s claim was correct. The train began to slow.

„Oh, what now?“ Dr. Bentley demanded, dropping her stylus.

The Rigellian turned to face the tiny human without bothering to move his shoulders. „The main drive rod appears to have disconnected itself. We’re losing all motivational power!“

„What about using Scientology?“ the Titan officer joked dryly.

„Ha. I laugh. You’re fired,“ Alice snapped.

Wisely, Erik covered the built-in microphone on his camcorder as he spat twelve of the fourteen dirty words you still couldn’t say on television. Even in the 24th century. Funny cops. Just what they needed.

Craning her neck out the window, Bentley could just see a dark flat mass ahead of them, and her nose hairs started to curl and burn. Without a doubt, the infamous Lake Underdunk. They were so close and yet so far.

„Ideas!“ the scientist barked loudly, trying desperately not to breathe. Phew, what a stink!

While the officer and the reporter scrunched their faces in thought, and then gagged as the smell of the lake hit them like a nasal injection of sewage, the alien brandished a wrench.

„I’ll free the rear carriages,“ he said and charged off into the empty passenger compartment. „Momentum equals mass over gravity plus velocity.“

True enough. „But who’s going to drive this thing?“ Erik demanded, gasping for air or any reasonable facsimile.

„It’s a train on tracks,“ Sergeant Zane wheezed, arching an eyebrow. „Where’s it going to go? Off for a pizza?“

Rat-a-clack. Rat-a-clack. Then from the rear of the train there came a metallic noise, half crunch, half snap and all loud. Instantly, the last two of the passenger compartments started to lag behind and the train drastically increased speed. The noise was repeated twice more and in short order there was nothing remaining of the once mighty convoy, apart from the environmentally safe, wood burning steam locomotive and the stainless steel tanker car holding the 55,000 gallons of the mutant brew, Y.U.M. 123.

Again, Dr. Bentley fumed. Why would anyone want to destroy such a benign project?

Soon Rocky returned. The alien had encountered no problems disconnecting the rear carriages, as all of them were empty. The plush seats, massive buffet and robotic bar cold and untouched. Although he bitterly hated cowards, Kaye really couldn’t blame the local politicians and bigwigs for passing on this trip. The Amalgamated Water project had been a horror from the word launch: Computers crashed; emails were lost; water pipes burst in the middle of conferences; power outages were rampant; diagnostic machinery was mis-wired; chemicals were improperly labeled; vicious pencil sharpeners worked too damn well, and he didn’t want to dwell on the sub-zero bathrooms. Nothing violent, nothing direct. No single act that would plainly state outside interference (which was why Zane was the only cop they had as protection), only endless little problems which bled the hope and drive from the people involved as efficiently as … ah, disconnecting the drive rods of a steam locomotive.

Holding onto a stanchion, Erik stuck an Irish Coffee flavorstick into his mouth and sucked a dozen millimeters of color from the confection, as the HoverCam automatically fed a prerecorded commercial into the AV loop. Faintly he could hear himself saying: „If it fits in the palm of your hand, is made of plastic, costs under ten dollars and breaks in a week, it’s another fine product from … The Gunderson Corporation! Makers of Murphy’s Law Soap … whatever can be cleaned, will be cleaned!“ Personally, he was impressed. Truth in advertising. What a wild concept.

Scanning the sky and the ravine around them, Zane loosened a collar button. „What’s the status?“ he barked in a military manner.

„We’ll make it,“ Rocky said, throwing his wrench aside tiredly. „Although stopping may be an interesting procedure.“

„Interesting, how?“ Zane asked.

With a grating noise, an eyeridge was raised. „Don’t crashes always make good TriD viewing?“

Oh swell.

Continuing to build speed, the train crested the arroyo, and started hurtling down the tracks towards the horrible thick quagmire of Lake Underdunk. Officially the most polluted body of water in the fourteen worlds of the Human Solar system, according to the Ecological Survey of 2207. And considering Boston Harbor in America, the Chernobyl Chili Factory in Russia, the Bikini Atoll nuclear test site, lower south Marsportville near the sulfur plant, along with most of the take-out restaurants in Bombay, India, that was really saying something.

With one silicate hand on the throttle, Rocky kicked open the firedoor and reached across the cabin to grab a log in the aft tinderbox. But as the log passed in front of Sergeant Zane, the man went stiff.

„Hold it!“ Zane shouted, his 1mm Bedlow laser pistol out of its shoulder holster and leveled at the lumbering leviathan.

Just to be polite, everybody else also froze.

„I’m a cyborg,“ the officer enunciated slowly, his blue eyes narrowed to dark slits. „And this log throws a radar shadow.“

„Impossible,“ Bentley snorted, crossing her arms. „Wood couldn’t do that unless,” her voice started to fail. „… there’s something metallic inside it.“

Gingerly, the alien placed the innocent appearing log on the floor and Zane went to work with a Venus Army Knife. With a click, the rough wood broke in half, the two pieces separating with a hydraulic sigh. Lying on the floor was a nasty looking assortment of steel tubes, fiber optic cables, a digital timer and four large blocks of a grayish clay compound. Nobody had any doubt as to what the infernal device was. It was classic. Prototypical of its kind.

„That’s a bomb, isn’t it?“ Rocky asked, nudging the explosive with a toe.

Flavorstick dropping from his mouth, Kaye pushed the alien back. „And it’s live!“ he shouted in rising fear, as the internal indicators started winking and blinking wildly. Holy prack!

„Not anymore,“ Zane said calmly, ripping a red wire free from the technological spaghetti. With a sad ratcheting sound, the indicators turned off and the internal electro-static supports of the device went limp.

While the rest of the crew sagged with relief, Rocky grabbed the fifty-kilo charge and heaved it over the side of the train, doing his best impersonation of Knute Rockney as the Statue of Liberty.

Arching into the distance, the log/bomb hit the middle of Lake Underdunk with more of a sploot than a splash and disappeared instantly into the watery morass.

„Better,“ smiled the alien.

Alice cocked an eyebrow at the goliath technician. „Do you really think that was necessary?“ was what she intended to ask, but before the words could leave her mouth the whole lake seemed to heave upwards, the putrid waters parting in a strident roar of hot gases and dead fish shotgunning into the air as if the world itself was vomiting. Smelled like it too. Whew!

Peeking out from behind the HoverCam, the scientist apologized for doubting the technician.

„Agreed,“ Zane said, his eyes glowing a faint blue as he stared hard at everything. „Now we’re safe.“

„For the moment,“ Kaye noted, scanning the horizon with a pair of trinoculars. Ever since he had been on this damn story, somebody, or bodies, had been systematically trying to stop it. Now their efforts had escalated from slashing the tires on ground cars and stealing clothes to outright murder.

„We didn’t include the job description ‘guardian’ in our original contract,“ Rocky said facing the tiny scientist. „I think we should renegotiate.“

„My station will kick in an extra thousand for the exclusive rights to the bomb story,“ Kaye snapped impatiently.

A stalactite grin. „Done.“

The reporter was starting to get the feeling that somebody, somewhere, was probably paying the Rigellian to use gravity. He didn’t do anything for free!

With a grateful nod to Erik, Alice glanced backwards at the massive refrigerated tanker trailing behind them just to make sure it was still there, safe and secure. That precious tank was the total capital worth of her company, Enviro Inc.

Inside that container was a new form of artificial life, and one even more useful than the previously created Bacteria 1040, which specialized in eating income tax forms.

Environment Incorporated had long been bothered by the fact that when humanity went into space, it left all of the garbage on Earth. As each colony matured, so did their pollution level. Thus, Enviro Inc. had created a sub-company, Amalgamated Water, and their brilliant staff in a sanitized space lab high above Jupiter spent the next two decades inventing Y.U.M. 123.

Y.U.M. was a genetically unstable organism with a total life span of six hours, and it ravenously ate anything suspended in the water that wasn’t alive. How the technicians got the stuff to make this distinction between a sluggish fish and an oil slick was beyond even their normally lugubrious ability to explain. But she had seen the test, and the stuff worked. About all it didn’t consume was concrete and steel. And thus was no danger to bridges, tunnels or floating boats. Although a scuba driver caught unawares might find himself suddenly stark naked, wearing only his air tank and a waterproof watch.

If Y.U.M. was introduced into a water system, like a polluted river, the end result was that the water would be rendered clean, absolutely chemically clean – drinkable, even – without any damage to the fish or plants. Should any still be living in the target cesspool.

The scientists at AmWa had started by experimenting on Kool-Aid, then beef stew, working their way up to raw bathroom sewage, and finally to industrial sludge. But the fluid contents of Underdunk were a sublime combination of all these mixed with the muck of a swamp, the waste of a toxic chemical dump site and the dissolved inventory of a garbage heap! Even the field-testing in New Jersey hadn’t prepared them for this.

„Plane,“ Sgt. Zane said, pointing towards the horizon.

Kaye pivoted and his HoverCam focused on the approaching speck. He’d just found the correct focus when a dozen other specks rose from the ground and the aerial dot blossomed into a quite spectacular fireball.

„Whew. Nice missile work,“ the alien commented.

„The gang at Titan Defense are masters of destruction,“ Sgt. Zane boasted proudly.

Erik grumped, „Your tax dollars at work. Maybe now the cops will believe us.“

„I sure do,“ the officer stated.

„Why?“ Dr. Bentley demanded petulantly. „Why would anybody not want a lake cleaned?“

Only the rat-a-clack of the train and the sounds of the syrupy water lapping sluggishly against the mottled beach answered her question.

„It’ll make the property values go up,“ Rocky suggested shoving logs into the furnace, but only after Sergeant Zane had given him a nod for each one. „Perhaps the source of the attacks wanted them to go down so he could purchase the land cheaply.“

„The government owns the property,“ Zane answered. „It’s going to become a park. If this works.“

„Yes, if!“

Rounding a bend in the tracks, the mixed crew could now plainly see their final destination. The infamous Lake Underdunk. There were no flies in the swampy air above the murky waterway because nobody made gas masks that tiny.

„So what’s the plan?“ Kaye asked, hoping the fumes wouldn’t dissolve his camera.

Standing rigidly to attention, Sergeant Zane turned from where he was saluting a passing Titan flag. They were now officially on government property. „As we pass the lake, we’ll open a series of nozzles and spray the entire eastern bank of the sludge pile.“

„So stopping is not necessary?“ Rocky asked curiously, rubbing his hands together and making a sound like sandpaper on a brick.

„Not until we want to get off.“

Surreptitiously, the granite giant hid the broken brake wheel behind his back. „Sounds good!“ As long as they didn’t charge him for breakage. Even a locomotive probably came under the universal axiom, ‚Nice to look at, nice to hold …‘

„The Y.U.M. is at operational temperature!“ Alice called, minutely adjusting gauges on the tanker by tapping commands onto her wrist secretary. „In range in 35 seconds …. twenty … ten … no!“

„What?“ Kaye snapped, extending his mike.

Frantic tapping. „The release control is stuck!“

„Allow me,“ Rocky rumbled, and reaching for the emergency manual release handle set among the engine controls, the alien used fingertip pressure to shove the steel bar forward one single notch. The rod broke off completely, falling to the floor and shattering like glass. Which it was.

„Ghtqz! This is a real fifteen cent operation!“ the huge alien cursed rudely. Or was the human phrase nickel and dime? Well, whatever, it was definitely time for some change!

„Son of a prack!“ Sgt. Zane cried furiously, the Titan agent drawing his Bedlow laser and pointing the weapon at the tanker.

„No!“ Dr. Bentley cried out, stepping between him and the tanker. „At this range the Y.U.M. fumes would kill us before they disperse! Even with the wind factor!“

Kaye slumped. So, their unknown foe had succeeded.

Amalgamated Water had spent every cent, pulled every string to get this one test into operation. Its failure meant an end to the whole operation. There was nothing more to be done. What a terrible end for the story.

„Do you mind?“ Rocky asked, plucking the laser from the officer. As the startled humans watched, the alien bent ridiculously far out of the cabin and fired one long burst from the energy pistol at something far ahead of them.

„Thanks,“ the stone said tossing the weapon back.

„Hey, the power pack is empty!“ Zane gasped in surprise.

„What did you do?“ gasped Kaye, scanning with his trinoculars.

„I destroyed the Underdunk inlet bridge,“ Rocky replied calmly.

„What?“ chorused the carbon based life-forms.

Below them the steaming mire of the horribly polluted basin flashed by like a vista from hell.

An avalanche of a shrug. „If we can’t reach the lake properly, then we shall crash into it.“

„We’ll all die!“

„Nonsense,“ he snorted. „We will only be going fifty, sixty kilometers per hour.“ A short pause. „You humans can take a crash at that speed onto concrete without damage, can’t you?“

Their horrified expressions told him different.

Oops.

„How soon till the bridge!“ Kaye demanded, making a fast duplicate of his video disks and tossing them overboard for safekeeping. The rainbow flats scattered to the wind, a few landing in the lake and beginning to dissolve.

„Oh, right about now,“ Sergeant Zane said in a falsely calm poker voice.

„Jump!“ Dr. Bentley yelled, and she did.

It was death one way or the other, so having little choice in the manner, Kaye and the rest joined her. Hugging his hovercam for protection, Erik followed suit, hoping and praying that his insurance premiums were paid in full. This was definitely going to hurt.

The fall was short, ending in a hard squash as the ex-passengers landed squarely in a large drainage ditch full of what drainage ditches were usually full off.

„Crap!“ sputtered the spattered Zane, waist deep in stinking brown goo, and everybody agreed. Yep, that’s what it was, all right. Good ol’non-toxic nightsoil from Oberion City. What a relief!

Rocky pulled himself free from the pit his landing had rudely formed in the concrete embankment and walked over to the edge to lend a hand to the quagmired humans. Soon standing on the cracked but solid lee, their three Gunderson Corporation PocketDocs extended mechanical spider legs and scurried out of belt pouches to begin assorted repairs and start the cleaning process. Gagging and retching, the battered humans watched as the thundering train roared past them on the track atop the steel girder trestle.

Barreling by at ever increasing speed, the steam engine tilted over

dangerously as it took a gentle curve in the track and then leveled out just in time to soar straight off the still glowing end of the ruined bridge.

For almost a full second the chugging train was suspended in the air, then it began to arc downward, rapidly descend and then plummet like a lead safe full of dead bricks.

The engine broke apart from the woodbin, which came free from the tanker and the three hit in a triad of meteoric impacts. A triangular geyser formed which made the precious bomb blast resemble a fishy fart. Sewage and biological toxins soared skyward forming, for a brief moment, a muddy mushroom cloud, the sight sending chills down everybody’s spine.

In ragged stages, the aquatic undulations ceased, the aerial sludge rained back down into its steaming home and visibility returned. Roughly in the middle of the lake, the refrigerated tanker bobbed like a steel hot dog. Using the trinoculars, Kaye saw that there didn’t appear to be even the smallest crack in its adamantine hull.

„The damn thing is still intact!“ he roared furiously, pulling out a handful of his curly hair.

„Yeah? Well, not anymore,“ Zane said, and the Bedlow was in his hand. The first shot merely cleansed the firing lenses in a harmless pyrotechnic display of lights. But the next emitted a shimmering beam of rainbow colors which stabbed out from the maw of the dire weapon and a neat line of puckered holes appeared in the resilient metal container, as if it was being attacked by a giant, invisible sewing machine. Steam wisped into view from the punctures and then a slick purplish fluid streamed out into the brownish-gray sludge of the lake.

Trying not to breathe too deeply as the air made their lungs burn, the battered group waddled hopefully to the sticky beach for a better look. A minute passed. Another, and then another.

„Nothing is happening,“ Kaye commented, tucking his fistful of hair into a pocket.

„Prack!“ Dr. Bentley cursed, and she pulled a tiny vial of oily fluid from a pocket. „The activator!“

Recording everything, Erik lowered his mike, looked at the twenty meters of pungent chemical sewage that separated them from the sinking locomotive, and surrendered. Whoever their unknown foe was had finally won. There was no way anybody could cross the morass of bio-toxins and survive. Not without spacesuits, which were hours away.

Both hands holding the vial to her heart, Dr. Bentley kicked one leg forward and lunged into a crouch, her right arm doing a hard fast whip forward.

The vial cannonballed towards the bubbling mess, dipped a bit and to the left, then crashed loudly against the metal hull. Like a glass comet, the tiny vial shattered into a million glistening pieces. Instantly, the purple goo underneath changed from white to brown, then green. Glorious green! Then everything sank from sight.

Standing on the beach, the group stared at the woman.

„A curve ball. Sorry. Old habit,“ Alice said sheepishly. „I was the relief pitcher for the Luna Miners during my college days for three years running.“

Straightening his filthy clothes, Erik took a stance before the lake, as the HoverCam reached out a mechanical arm and combed his hair into place. It then powdered his nose, adjusted focus and flashed the On-Air signal.

„So, ladies and gentlemen, this is it. We have finally reached Lake Underdunk in spite of colossal odds. For any new viewers who may have just tuned in, this is Erik Kaye for TBBC, reporting live from the independent moon, Titan. Long a haven for chemical research, industrial dumping, and nuclear storage, the people of Titan, like those on Earth, have only recently started the odious job of cleaning up their incredibly polluted environment.“

A half-turn to stage left to show his good side and display a section of the bubbling cesspool. „And the scientists of Amalgamated Water have been plagued by mysterious problems from the very beginning. Missed shipments, mis-marked containers. Computer viruses, scrambled phone lines. Nothing violent, or overt. But a steady destruction of this totally innocuous project. Coincidence? I think not.“

The anchor glanced over his shoulder at the smooth expanse of the dead lake.

„Due to their ever-growing population, Titan Central has domed over this sight and is attempting to reclaim this lost bit of biology. A noble task. Exemplary! Only,“ his voice lowered dramatically. „Can it be done?“

Tense moments passed, as Dr. Bentley wiped her face clean with a pocket-handkerchief, and prayed. After twenty years of hard work, the incredible project was starting. Alice glanced at her watch. Correction – it had started two minutes ago.

Standing on an old abandoned aircar engine, Zane pointed towards the lake. „Look!“

„Wait a minute, I can see something happening,“ Kaye said for his blind or inattentive viewers.

Something was swirling below the slimy surface. A bubble rose to the syrupy surface of the lake, then a second, a third and a forth. Then a series of bubbles, then the center began to furiously boil. As fast as it started the process stopped, and a great calm engulfed the hundred domed hexacres of deep space refuse park.

Had the Y.U.M. worked? Was that it? A measly bubbling. A can of fizzy soda pop could have done better!

„Hey, I see something,“ Rocky said, his crystalline eyes extending on louvered stalks from inside his head. „The center of the lake…yes, it is … it’s changing color.“

„It’s doing what?“ Dr. Bentley demanded, pulling out a set of pocket trinoculars and dialing for computer enhancement.

Using her magnified vision, Alice realized that the blackish fluid in the general vicinity of the crashed train was taking on a green hue. Was it an oil leak from the hydraulic system? Had the bar ruptured? Or…

But as she watched, the green section turned aquamarine, dark blue, light blue and then clear. Perfectly clean water!

Dumbfounded by the extreme change, her wrist secretary ran a diagnostic on itself and sent an angry letter to the manufacturer for such obviously shoddy workmanship on its sensors.

Inch by inch, the circle expanded into the stygian, nigh impregnable, Underdunk, centuries of industrial pollution rendering it little more than a pool of mud.

The patch of clear water advanced towards the shore, annihilating the unidentifiable muck as it came. As the sluggish lake met the bubbling barrier, all contaminants disappeared, and only impossibly pure water remained. The likes of which humanity had not seen since dinosaurs trampled prehistoric Vikings taking a pee in a primordial stream.

The lake’s bottom was gradually revealed – an irregular expanse of rocks, and the occasional steam locomotive. Obviously its iron body was immune to the ravaging effects of the clean up.

Now in full operation, completely unleashed, and hungry as hell, the mutated microbes of Y.U.M. 123 tied tiny napkins about their throats and really went to lunch. Rapidly, the zone of clean water began spreading in every direction. Relentlessly it went into a true primordial feeding frenzy, as the Y.U.M. ate everything not physiologically alive, thermally warm or chemically active in the abandoned lake.

Just then, a gasping fish dove out of the mire and splashed happily into the cool blue. Amused, the observers smiled at each other. Life was indomitable. Even on Titan.

Filling half the sky, the ringed majesty of Saturn reflected like fresh diamonds off the sparkling lake within a lake. Unstoppable, the patch of shiny blue, heralded by its bubbling green cuff, raced off in every direction. In only minutes, the entire surface turned a beautiful deep azure blue. And the zone of visibility descended deeper and deeper into the murky lake with every passing second. More fish were exposed, along with a turtle and a ver surprised-looking octopus, which promptly swam away.

However, the surface color change did not stop as it reached the river feeding into the lake, and the grayish water of the contaminated tributary underwent the same incredible transformation as the microbes raced upriver, into a sewer pipe and out of the protective dome. The Y.U.M. had a lot to do in its remaining six hours, and every second of that was going to be spent feeding and breeding.

A soft wind blew over the sticky crew, and it did not make them cringe. It smelled faintly of air conditioning. But fresh was the operative word. Clean and fresh.

„Holy Buddha, Mary and Zeus, it worked,“ Erik Kaye whispered, the filthy microphone dangling limply in his hands.

Polishing his laser, Sergeant Zane suddenly stopped and snapped his fingers for attention. The anchor looked, gasped, smiled and then resumed his more formal stance of a news reporter. Ah, now they had some answers.

Although the water of the lake was perfectly clear, the center of Underdunk was too deep to see. But lining the shoals and along the shallow banks leading to the shore, was a forest of underwater skeletons, their feet in tubs of concrete. Over in a sandbar lurked a collection of automobiles with more skeletons handcuffed to the steering wheels. There were piles of knives and a small mountain of pistols. Everything was in remarkably good condition.

„And now we know why the project had secret enemies,“ Dr. Bentley announced, looking into the crystal-clear expanse of the new water.

Near the bubbling locomotive on the bottom of the lake, and resting a bed of golden sand, were boxes and file cabinets. Old and rusty but many – most – appeared to be intact.

„Evidence,“ Kaye guessed out-loud for his unseen audience. „Most likely, organized crime has been using this place as dumping sight since time immemorial. Or at least since 2245 when the United Planets colonized Titan.“

„And if this process works here, it’ll work anywhere. Even on Earth!“

„Or Rigel Five,“ Rocky whispered. A clean Rigel. Both of his brains boggled at the concept. What a wild notion. His children could actually go into either of the oceans and not explode. Wow.

„Honorable Dr. Bentley, old pal,“ the alien began smoothly, retracting his eyestalks. „May I humbly ask for the formula of these amazing microbes to clean my own homeworld of our pollution?“

„Yeah?“ the woman asked suspiciously. „And how much will you sell it to them for?“

The words burned like fire in his mind, but summoning some secret hidden inner strength, he heroically said them anyway. „I … I shall not sell it.“

„You? Do something for free? Ha!“ Zane snorted.

The fresh lake air wafted over him and the alien happily filled his lung. Ah! „Doctor, there are some things even more important than …” Immediately, his throat constricted. No, he couldn’t say it. What the hell, he’d give the Y.U.M. to his government as a charitable donation to lower his taxes. Ah, much better. To his race ‚free‘ was only four-letter ‚f‘ word not used in polite company.

„Well, you have been instrumental in helping us complete the project,“ Bentley murmured. „So, yes, agreed. But no blackmarket reselling.“

„Never!“ the alien cried in horror. His honor was on the line here. Besides, there were witnesses, and a verbal contract was always as good as the police force which backed it up with guns.

With the report to his superiors completed, Officer Zane released his collar button and smiled at the dirty group on the shore. „Tactical support groups from the local police, UP military and InterPlanPol will be here in six minutes. Even the president of Mars and his dog are coming. „This,“ he added unnecessarily, „is big!“

Bentley nodded. „Excellent. Thank you, officer.“

„No problem, ma’am.“ Walking to the edge of the lake, Erik Kaye swabbed the toe of his boot in the water. The leather was instantly washed clean and the polish removed.

„And just consider what other criminal delights we will find at the bottom of the Hudson River in Newer York, the Thames River in England, the Rhine of Germany, or the sea of Japan.“ Running a hand through his matted hair, the big officer smiled. „Just imagine how much critical evidence in capital cases we’re going to reclaim! And how much of this will be linked to organized crime.“

„Yes, indeed,“ Kaye said, swinging his microphone and HoverCam to face the police officer. „Exactly how many unsolved crimes are about to become solved? How many murder raps cleared, innocent prisoners set free, and drug lords sent to jail? What is your professional opinion, sergeant?“

The Titan officer grinned. „I think the warden at the United Planets penitentiary better dust off ‘Sparky’ the electric chair, because it’s gonna get mighty busy real soon.“

Finally understanding, Rocky pursed his forehead. Criminals had been disposing of evidence in the polluted water? Hmm, damn clever actually. „No wonder somebody tried so hard to stop us. Hell, every criminal organization probably wanted us dead.“

Gleefully happy, Alice Bentley agreed. Although not designed for it, Y.U.M. was in the process of removing more than one type of human pollution.

„Ha-ha, we win!“ she laughed, arms akimbo.

* * *

The next day on Earth, a growing crowd of people waved and cheered on the Hudson River shoreline, a bold few even diving into the fantastically pure expanse of water filing the mouth of the river. Where sparkling waves lapped at the banks, trash was no longer visible, graffiti gone from rocks; wood pillions and ancient concrete embankments appeared new and strong. Even the ever-present, pungent, cheese smell was thinning from the air. More than a few onlookers started hacking and choking as the invasion of oxygen hit their weathered lungs. Immediately, their neighbors began selling cough drops.

Arcing the horizon, dozens of horribly beweaponed United Planets Leviathan-class hovertanks appeared. Maneuvering over the clear water, sidehatches slid open and out dove hundreds of soldiers in armored spacesuits, which functioned perfectly well as diving suits. And had much better TV reception. Each trooper was carrying a very large wicker basket that was empty for the moment.

Meanwhile, in countless luxurious penthouses across Manhattan, groups of well-dressed gangsters started packing for Pluto – when suddenly, an armada of police Tarantula helicopters lifted into view outside the windows, and from the front door there came a very official knock-knock.

Trapped, the crime lords slumped in resignation, some of them openly weeping. While outside the penthouse window could be seen a foaming green band racing up the Hudson river, eventually heading for the poisonous Finger Lakes, the undrinkable Niagara Falls, the toxic Great Lakes, the putrid Ohio River, the deadly Mississippi…

Across the world, the common folk cheered and danced, while numerous industrialists underwent desperate plastic surgery in their racing limos and more than one drug lord simply shot himself in the head to save the police the time and trouble of a trial. Unstoppable and uncaring of these antics, the microbes continued eating themselves to a glorious death across the entire world: South America, Australia, South Africa, Europe, Russia….

The terraforming of Earth had finally begun.

Copyright © 2012 by Nick Pollota

Nick Pollotta has written Science Fiction, Fantasy, Humor, Young Adult, Mystery, Horror, Thrillers, Steampunk, and now Paranormal Romance. His SF& F novels have been translated in numerous foreign languages, and 37 of his novels have been made into audio books. A former stand-up comic, Nick now lives in Chicago with his wife, Melissa, 14,000 hardback books, an antique weapons collection, and three cats who secretly plan to conqueror the world.

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