Chapter 38 Atlas Not Another Mass Extinction Event
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Atlas stood over his printer as it buzzed out printout after printout. It was a real printer too. Not a hapticgram. The paper and printer had been produced by one of his fabricators. Maybe it was a placebo, maybe it wasn’t. But using real physical paper and listening to the printer pop out sheet after sheet really helped focus his mind. The more he filled his workspace with real objects, the easier he found it to think and solve problems. The printer had completed its run.

He picked up the stack of paper – they were still hot to the touch.  He riffled through the many, many pages looking for a particular graph. Sighing deeply when he found it and saw the trendline. “It’s not just an anomaly, it’s a trend on all the species on the planet.” He said to Ship.

The page showed was a line graph showing the population overtime of many different species in the New Europa oceans. Each line representing a different species. And each line was trending downwards. Meaning that overtime populations of all the species on the graph were decreasing.

Some of the species’ populations were collapsing faster than the others. When he first noticed there were fewer animals, he had hoped it was just an isolated matter. But all around his planet marine populations were falling at an alarming rate. His whole ecosystem was collapsing.

And New Europa was mostly a water world still. He needed the marine animals to build up so he could use them as the bases of organic matter to build the topsoil of his continents.

He needed to find a reason for the population collapse. At that moment, he wished they had someone in the team who specialised in ecosystems. They had left so early that planning the actual ecology of a planet hadn’t yet been sorted. There wasn’t much point in worrying about it now anyways. Besides, any planning they did on Mars would have been completely theoretical because humanity hadn’t done anything on this scale yet.

He scrolled through the stack of paper once more, looking for a clue. Circling datapoints and throwing away some of the sheets. He slid one of the pages towards Ship as he pointed at two numbers. “This is the anomaly. The size of the fungus colony is shrinking faster than can be explained by the number of animals eating it. This is what I can’t explain right here.” He said, again wanting to use Ship as a sounding board.

Ship picked up the paper and studied it. “Is it some disease? Or random mutation killing the fungus?”

Atlas shook his head. “I don’t think so. This was a sterile planet, and I haven’t introduced any disease to the planet.” He held out a new sheet of paper. “And this is a new strain of the fungus I introduced. It’s been struggling as much as the original, so it can’t be a random mutation.”

Ship scratched his head. Thinking of different possibilities. “Have you ruled out a change in atmosphere?”

Atlas nodded.

“What else could it be? What else could have changed between when we first introduced the fungus and now?” Ship asked.

Atlas took in that question and thought about it. It was the right question to be asking. The two of them stood there in silence. Thinking. Pondering. Remembering back to the first day the green fungus first exploded onto the planet.

“What has changed?” Atlas muted under his breath. Then a lightbulb went off in his head. “Food!” He shouted. “Or better yet, energy.”

Ship smiled a knowing smile. “I think you’ve figured it out. Can you go fix it now?”

 “Can I at least talk it through with you?” Atlas said not waiting for a reply he continued. “Do you know what a primary producer is?”

Ship rolled his eyes. “Please enlighten me.”

“We need a better primary producer at the base of the ecosystem pyramid,” Atlas said, creating a pyramid symbol with his hands. “Or rather we need a primary producer.”

Ship looked puzzled. “What’s a primary producer?”

“Think of the eco system we are trying to build as a pyramid. At the very top of the pyramid you have carnivores like the orca we seeds a few months ago.” He pointed to the very top of his pyramid. “They get all their energy from consuming the fish. And those fish get their energy from consuming the smaller marine animals underneath them in the pyramid. And this keeps happening all the way until you get to the very bottom of the pyramid.” Atlas made a show of pointing to the bottom of his hand made pyramid.

“So the primary producers are the base of the pyramid?” Ship asked.

“Exactly. Primary producers are the very bottom of this eco system. They’re the very start of the chain.” Atlas paused realising he was mixing up metaphors. “To be honest, I’m not sure our fungus is even a primary producer. It’s the very bottom of New Europa’s eco system now. But it too is consuming materials on the rocks that have built up over billions of years.”

“That sounds like a long-winded way of saying the fungus is running out of things to eat.” Ship offered.

“Exactly, just like fossil fuels back on Earth. What our fungus is eating is running out. We need to introduce something that feeds off a renewable food source. Something that feeds off light.” Atlas paused, almost laughing at himself. He was trying to be too clever. Everyone knows that plants are the bottom of the food chain. But somehow, he was blinded by the effort he’d put into genetically engineering a particular type of fungus.

“Atlas, does that mean we’ll be putting plants in the ocean?” Ship said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

Atlas bit his lower lip. “It means we need to introduce phytoplankton. That will be our primary producer species that the pyramid will be based on.”  

Ship shook his head disagreeing. “I think we should introduce a number of primary producers.” Ship made an pyramid with his own hands. “See how the bottom of the pyramid is bigger than the top. I think if we have a thriving and diverse bottom of the pyramid. We’ll have a very resilient colony.”  

Atlas’s head moved up and down slowly. He was agreeing with his friend – but he was also full of pride. When they started this journey, his Ship was a lazy AI. He preferred to cut corners and not do any research. It had taken Atlas a long time to shape Ship into the person he was today. Now the two of them were becoming a very competent team. They were solving problems and becoming better explorers because of it. In that moment Atlas was very hopeful and excited about all the continued adventures together. He smiled as he spoke – encouraging Ship to develop his idea further. “Where do you suggest we start?”

Ship thought about it for a long while. Atlas could tell he wasn’t expecting a follow up question.

The printer came to life once more as Ship walked towards it. “I think we seed every primary producer we have in the oceans. And on land…” He picked up the stack of paper. “On land we do this. These are designs for a hydroponics megaproject. Let’s not wait to use organic matter from the oceans to build out topsoil. Let’s start making grass, tomatoes, strawberries – anything that can grow in a hydroponic.”

Atlas studied the design - it was modular. Ship called them hydroponic tents. Basically, a glasshouse about the size of a basketball court, built three metres high with rows upon rows of white tubes – presumably for water. He looked through the pages and noticed that it was designed to be lifted and moved by a single eleph-ANT – with ANTs at each corner for guidance. “Why make them transportable? Wouldn’t it make sense to have permanent farming locations?”

“Eventually,” Ship said, as he walked over to the printer once more. This time the printout was an A2 sized map of the islands they had almost completed building. He spread the map out on the table. In the end they had modelled it on Earth’s continents – only smaller. So it looked like Ship had simply rolled out a map of Earth. Someone who knew maps however, would notice it was a very simplified version. The major land masses were all there – and they resembled the Earth versions. But a lot of the detail was missing. Australia and New Zealand for example weren’t missing from the map – they were just in the wrong place.

Ship pointed at the island that resembled North America. “We could cover this island in the hydroponics tents. Then start producing organic material as quickly as possible.  Once complete we could send ANTs in to harvest everything and just dump it all on the ground. Do that several times and after a while we’ll have all this organic waste under neither the hydroponic tents.”

“Let’s call them hydro-tents,” Atlas suggested as the idea begun to develop in his head. “So you’re suggesting we make them transportable, so we can pick them up.” Atlas pointed to where Europe was on the map. “And move them here where we start the process again.”

“Exactly,” Ship said, grinning with pride.

Atlas begun getting excited at the thought of this mega-project. “I could engineer a new fungus to decompose all this organic material. We could mix that all in with material from the oceans. That would speed up the process of creating topsoil for the planet.” He started writing calculations on the map. “We could dedicate different hydroponic tents to different plant life. Just to test what works best and improve on it.”

The two of them worked side by side to get the mega-project underway. Finalising their designs and plans. Atlas focused on getting the various primary producers seeded in the oceans. While, Ship started work on the hydro-tents.

“Lex can you help us with something?” Atlas called out an idea, or joke (he wasn’t sure), popping into his head.

Atlas winked at Ship, “Lex, I know you love to over-producer things. Can you help Ship pump out enough hydro-tents to cover the whole of the North America island?” He paused, learning from his mistakes. “But once you’ve covered the island in them. Stop. Don’t build any more than that.”