The Souring Seas Chapter Two

I’ve spent the last two weeks working on generating another ‘final’ version of The Souring Seas, part one in the trilogy of short novels comprising The Road to Environmental Armageddon. They will lead to my more dramatic and focused Environmental Armageddon story. When I got annoyed with my ponderously slow progress, I diverted to touching up the paint on the inside of our house. Making much better progress with the walls than I am with the book.

Plan of the month is to publish The Souring Seas soon and move on to An Industrial Solution and Future Imperfect, the second and third step toward my grand finale, Environmental Armageddon. We all know ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’, but if I actually publish this latest version of The Souring Seas, I’ll be committed. That, at least, might finally stop all my dithering.

Here’s a slightly revised version of the cover and the link to Chapter One. I’m posting Chapter Two here, but if you want to read the rest, you may have to wait until I get the damn thing published.

Chapter Two

Friday, May 6, 2022

After three days designing, building, and testing electrode housings, Tony had a working aquarium. It wouldn’t be robust until he installed an array of precision housings produced by a machine shop’s computer-operated tools, but it should function.

That afternoon, he approached the busy coffee shop near his apartment with a spring in his step. Inside Cuppa Java, he bought a medium house blend in a porcelain mug and scanned the glass-topped cast-iron tables and matching metal chairs.

The blond bombshell from Monday morning gazed into space from a window table. She was wearing a white sundress splashed with red and yellow flowers. Inappropriate attire for a chilly spring day, but sexy as hell.

He wandered over. “Heyo, neighbour, is this seat taken?”

A frown creased her brow as a black cloud obscured the late afternoon sunshine. “Feel free.”

“You may not recognize me, but we’re neighbours, eh?”

“Sorry,” she said. “Was I, like, staring? You looked familiar, but I couldn’t place you.”

Tony glanced around with one hand on the chairback before placing his coffee on the table. “Anthony Atherton at your service, but everyone calls me Tony.”

He made an exaggerated bow with a majestic sweep of his right arm. He imagined holding a big medieval hat instead of his Boston Red Sox ball cap, but one couldn’t have everything.

She scowled. “Elizabeth Manville. Friends call me Beth.”

He pulled back his chair and swept away imaginary crumbs. “You know, I’ve often seen you here.” That was stretching the truth—he was only vaguely aware of seeing her previously. “Perhaps now we’re acquainted, we can become coffee shop friends.”

“At work, I drink coffee, and then when I’m not working, I come here and drink coffee.”

He sat as Beth fiddled with her mug. Her scowl suggested his exuberance may somehow be insulting, but he wouldn’t let that deter him.

“Whatcha do, eh?” he asked.

“My boyfriend and I are actors. That means drinking coffee while waiting for endless auditions. If I get a job, I’m like drinking more while I wait for my few minutes before the camera.”

Tony leaned forward, coffee mug halfway to his lips. “Exciting! A film or television actress. Should I, you know, recognize you?”

“Doubt it. Bit parts in a few movies and TV shows. Mostly commercials. If you recognize me, it’ll be an insipid soap commercial or something similar. Or a stupid smiling face staring from a magazine ad. Nothing romantic or exciting.” She tipped her mug until the remaining coffee reached the rim. “What about you?”

“Student at Dalhousie starting on a PhD in oceanography. We’re studying the effects of global warming.”

She smiled as the sun returned from behind the dark cloud. “Sounds fun. Tell me.”

“You sure,” he said, his confidence evaporating. “I’ll, you know, bore you.”

“No way! I’m real interested in science and the environment. I should have gone to university and studied biology. This will be some good.”

His eyes widened. Her reaction was far too good to believe. “Stop me when I get boring, eh?”

“Get going already,” she replied, her smile broadening as she thumped her mug on the table.

He took a deep breath before launching into his standard explanation of the relationship between fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, and global warming.

He’d barely begun when Beth held up her hand while shaking her head. “The previous federal government’s attitude was real negative. The latest Ontario government and the previous US administration didn’t treat it as an important problem. And Trudeau talks progressive but subsidizes heavy oil production. They’re, like, squashing people’s interest.”

“Totally agree. Our government’s attitude is inconsistent—green-friendly high-profile pronouncements but little concrete action.”

Beth scowled while tapping her index finger on the table. “Someone should challenge them. Learn why they’re taking us down this road to ecological crises.”

“Wow, you are interested in environmental affairs.”

Her smile reappeared. “Whenever my career bogs down. But what about you? Where do you stand?”

Tony hesitated, surprised by the depth of her interest in environmental politics and the way her scepticism of government policies paralleled his. He took a deep breath and plunged into his description of the potential problems without committing to any political approaches. He focused on his interest, the effects of carbon dioxide emissions and increasing acidity on the marine environment. Tony described the pH control system he developed for the large aquarium as his master’s project and the puzzling development he’d woken up to on Monday morning.

After several minutes of sometimes incoherent explanation interrupted by numerous questions, she drained her coffee and put down her empty mug. “Sorry to stop you, but it’s, like, time to go.”

She leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I wasn’t bored. Next time, we can have another oceanography lesson. And incidentally, I liked your performance Monday morning. But the dialogue was too much. Try a little less cursing.”

She strutted away, but before she disappeared, her shoulders slumped.

She’s messing with my friggin’ mind and hiding something I must discover.

Monday morning, Professor Krueger stormed into the laboratory, brandishing Jacinta’s summary of their endeavours. Their research director was a large, exuberant man, and storming around was his normal behaviour.

He stopped before the whiteboard that occupied the wall between doors to two student offices. A fume hood and glass-fronted cupboards with bottles and equipment lined the remaining interior walls. Two laboratory benches dominated the floor space, and windows on the exterior wall provided natural light.

He picked up a marker and addressed his team. “Good morning. I compliment you on a job well done. Your results are intriguing, but we have much to accomplish before shouting Eureka.”

“Good morning, sir,” the perennially formal Jacinta replied. “I trust your German trip went well.”

Dr. K nodded. “An interesting meeting, and you’ve produced a fascinating new observation. It’s your discovery, Jacinta, what do you propose?”

“We must identify the mysterious pennate diatom that dominated the bloom.”

“That’s important, and I can help verify your identification.” Dr. K paused, took three paces, and stared through a window. He strode back to the whiteboard. “Isolating it and determining how it responds to pH change will follow. For that, we’ll need smaller aquaria.”

Tony smiled from his perch on a laboratory bench. When Dr. K found something interesting, he jumped in. If Jacinta wanted to control her experiment, she must stand up to him, but she was too respectful.

Dr. Krueger charged on. “This is a job for you, Tony. If you begin today, I’ll pay you retroactively from the first.” Tony nodded, and Dr. K continued. “We’ll need aquaria with pH control like we have for the large pool.”

“Presumably, you’re imagining static aquaria.” Tony stepped to the whiteboard and sketched a series of three-dimensional boxes bristling with electrodes. “We’ll need pH meters and electrodes, and separate acid control systems for each aquarium.”

“Buy them. We shouldn’t dismantle the pool system.” Dr. K replied before turning toward Jacinta. “You should repeat the latest experiment.”

“What about the nutrient question?” she asked. “We do not understand where the bloom found the nutrients it needed.”

Tony considered techniques to control fluctuating pH as Dr. K and Jacinta droned on about biology. A tricky engineering problem was better than nebulous biological considerations. He reconnected when Rosie joined the conversation.

“Last week, Jacinta sent me to the library to investigate other low pH environments. I learned many oceanside lakes have freshwater sitting above saltwater washed in from the sea. Lakes like that around here?”

“Porter’s Lake may be one,” Tony suggested.

Dr. Krueger waved the marker like a conductor with a baton. “Surveys of saline lakes are a good idea, Rosie. If a lake has runoff from acid rain, we may see low pH and ocean salinity. Put Porter’s Lake on our agenda, but first, we must get the aquaria working.”

On his way out, Dr. K beckoned to Tony. He strode to his book-cluttered office and closed the door behind Tony before saying anything.

“We must consider how last week’s observations lead to other investigations. But first, we should firm up your duties for the summer.”

Tony frowned. They’d discussed those plans during April while he corrected errors in his master’s thesis. “I’m to manage the aquarium system and pursue short-term research you outlined. In September, I’ll register for my PhD.”

“Correct, and the aquarium management job becomes more complex. The experiments I planned no longer interest me.”

“Sir, you want me to focus on engineering problems?”

Dr. K sighed. “Rather like your master’s project, but, yes, that should be our immediate priority.” He paused, staring out the window. “Jacinta will concentrate on her biological observations. You should monitor her efforts and consider how you could build a thesis project on that foundation.”

“Other climate change research may be more interesting.”

“I’m not suggesting you abandon your training and become a biologist.”

“Then, you know, what are you suggesting?” Tony asked. If Dr. K was trying to push his thinking in a certain direction, he wasn’t making his intentions very clear.

“Keep an open mind. Jacinta’s endeavours should inform a project that suits your interests.”

“So that’s my task, eh? Establish protocols for controlling pH in smaller aquaria?”

“With Rosie’s help. Then you can watch over the experiments she conducts for Jacinta.”

Tony borrowed pH meters and electrodes that wouldn’t be needed until September from a Chemistry Department teaching lab and idle computers from the Chemistry Student Resource Centre. When he reached the aquarium annex with his new equipment, he discovered Rosie was a step ahead of him. She had six large sea-water-filled aquaria on a reinforced bench along one wall. He installed the electrodes and other plumbing, transferred his control program to the six computers, and connected everything. By noon, they were experimenting with pH control in small aquaria.

Their first experiments with no plankton in the tanks were unsuccessful. All six drifted to lower pH, confounding the conventional understanding natural processes would generate an upward drift. He added a second control loop that introduced sodium carbonate and reprogrammed the computers.

Experiments with plankton from the large aquarium also failed. Two grew rapidly, an observation that intrigued Jacinta, three grew at rates similar to those in the big aquarium, but in one, the plankton died. An experiment Rosie ran with added nutrients also gave confusing results. Nutrient concentrations had little impact on growth rates.

Dr. K made frequent visits as they struggled to control pH in their new aquaria. He waxed poetic about their work, and its potentially earth-shattering implications for climate change. He repeated his comment about being on the cusp of a significant breakthrough and never expressed frustration with their lack of progress. By month’s end, his happy-go-lucky approach had worn thin.

The ongoing climate change discussion in the graduate students’ coffee room was equally frustrating. A twit named Steve Matthews droned on about the Gaia Hypothesis. He claimed the biological system could look after itself without intervention by climate change scientists. Add politicians and climate change deniers on the Christian right who insisted God would look after everything, and you had a recipe for Earth-destroying inertia.

If Jacinta’s observations were so important, shouldn’t they identify the problems, jumpstart the research, and announce the results to the world?

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