The New World
Sheltered in the hulking shell of a car, the old man was quietly warming himself by the heat given off the burning tire. It takes a great deal of effort to get a tire to catch fire and burn, and he was relaxing after the ordeal. Crunching and scuffing sounds came from behind him in the dark. A young face looked over the front of the wreck and stared at the old man. After a moment, he spoke to the haggard youth, “If you would like to share my fire, you’re welcome.”
At the sound of the invitation, the young man held up a revolver and pointed it. “Don’t try anything funny, I’ll shoot you old man, I will.”
“Hey, I’m just sitting here in the warmth of the fire. I have no gun, I won’t try anything.”
The youth scrambled over the rubble and sat across the fire from the old man. “How did you get a tire to burn? I’ve never seen that.”
“It takes a bit of effort.” Was all the old man said.
The kid lowered the gun a little, and asked, “Can you show me how to do it? I mean it gets pretty cold out here at night and I sure could use a fire at night. Could you?”
“Sure, my name is Jacob, friends call me Jake. What’s your name?”
“Mu parents call me Denny. Hey, you find any food around here? I haven’t eaten for a few days. I found a buried store a ways from here and there was some canned stuff still left. But not much.”
Jake looked at the boy and asked him, “Denny, let me ask you a question. And it is important so I need you to think about it. But I am a scientist, I’m not sure if you know what that is, but I, and a group of others, are trying to reverse what has happened to the world. And I need your help.”
“I think I know what you are. My parents talked about how scientists are what destroyed the world. You look pretty old, ate you one of the ones that ruined everything?”
A sad look came over the face of Jake and he continued, “No Denny, sorry. There were a lot of scientists a long time ago. Many of them thought that they were helping the world, trying to save it. They created something that would forever change the world. And not for good either. But I am not one of them. My friends and I have been living in a sealed cave some distance from here.”
“So what happened to cause all this?”
“Did your parents teach you anything about the world?”
“Not much. A few things, about how there used to be plants and stuff around. Things used to grow out of the ground and we could eat them. Sounds pretty cool.”
“Cool indeed Denny, cool indeed. About 60 years ago there was a crisis in the world. At that time we, humans, used what were called fossil fuels to power our world. The problem was that those fossil fuels were themselves destructive. And they were becoming scarce. So some scientists came up with a unique way to solve the energy problem. They did what's called gene splicing and they took some ordinary bacteria and spliced into them some genes that would allow the bacteria to eat cellulose. And they converted that to alcohol and methane. Two things we could use for fuel.”
Denny brightened at the term gene splicing. He began, “My mom said that years ago there was some gene splicing and they made fish that grew really big and really fast. Those got loose and the bears ate them and soon they got really big too.”
“That’s right Denny, that did happen. At the time, the scientists thought that the genes they splice into organisms could not possibly migrate into animals that ate them. They were wrong, and the bears were one of the first indicators that there was a problem with the technology. Bears ate a lot of those big fish and soon, they began to grow as well as the growth genes in the fish became part of the bears. Soon bears were growing to 15 to 20 feet tall and they grew like crazy and in a short time were killing people wherever they were found.”
“Yeah man, my mom told me she saw some of them. They must have been pretty wicked.”
"Denny, that was only a small part of the problem. The gene splicing technology was soon found to cause sterility if people ate the food products over a long enough period of time. That's why when all these problems started most people were unable to have any more children anymore. You are just one lucky kid, there probably aren't many other people left around are there?"
Denny looked at Jake for a few minutes before he spoke, "No, none that I have seen. I was raised in a colony of people by a big lake. But everyone died a long time ago. I went out looking for other people, you're the second one I found. Not many out anymore I guess."
“Sorry about your mom. I'm sure there are still people out there, we just have to find them. Well anyway, the bacteria that were built to consume cellulose were let loose into the environment and they did what bacteria are designed to do. They ate cellulose. Of course our world is based on cellulose. Plants have cellulose in them, and soon the bacteria consumed all the living plant life everywhere along with everything else in the world, wood, paper, just the very foundation of the world around us.”
‘So that’s why all the plants died?”
“They didn’t die Denny, they were eaten by bacteria. And that’s why I’m here. I am looking for plants that might have adapted to this plague and have begun to grow again. That’s why I need your help.”
“Me, what can I do man, I don’t know nothin’ about what you’re talkin’ about.”
“I know, but still, you can help. I just need to know if you have ever seen any patches of green anywhere. Green lichens, or moss, or algae growing on rocks or anywhere around.”
“Green stuff growing would indicate some growth of moss or some other plants. What that would mean is that the lowest forms of plant life on the planet have begun to adapt and have developed resistance to the bacteria. My friends and I have worked in seclusion in our little bubble world in a sealed cave for almost sixty years now and we have not as of yet come close to developing any form of plants that will withstand the onslaught of the bacteria. I'm about the last one of my friends left, certainly the only one capable of making this journey. If we find native moss, fungi or algae, or well, anything, we may be able to isolate the characteristics of their changes and adapt them to higher forms of plants. Trees, food crops, everything.”
Denny looked at the older man. “Awe man, I don’t know if I believe you. My mom told me that you scientists are what destroyed the world. What you are talking about sounds pretty weird.” And with that he raised the revolver and shot Jake.