Grey Search

Chuck’s challenge this week: Random Titles.

I found my title — Grey Search — and after banishing thoughts of Gandalf fan-fiction, the only thing left clanging around in my brain was Grey Goo. I ran a little long, but I’m cutting myself a break in favor of the interesting world this found me in.


Photo by Ian Norman @ Flickr.
Photo by Ian Norman @ Flickr.

Grey Search

Another day, another foray into the Grey.

I scrub up and haul on the lime green bodysuit, stuff my feet into triple-poly thermal boots, strap on the insulated mitts so thick and stiff they’re like big yeti paws. I don’t bother to check myself in the mirror: I already know I look perfectly indistinguishable from the others on my team, suiting up in their own clean rooms.

The redundancy is tedious, but chances are not worth taking.

I double check my seams and tromp down the hallway to the airlock. I breathe the canned air deep into my lungs; it’s been recycled so many times, it’s hard not to smell the stale farts and garbage in it, though the utility squad assures me that’s just my imagination. Still, it’s better than the bland, window-cleaner smelling brew they outfit the enviro-suits with. It resists contamination longer, they say. But it turns my stomach something awful.

Satch and Virge are already in the airlock, masks in place and suits pressurized. They look like a pair of Stay-Puft marshmallow men. Manx waits by the terminal, her fingers flying over the keyboard, probably reconfiguring the daily power allowances for the core. We used to have three people handling that job around the clock, until Manx got her hands on a computer and showed the council she could do the same job in a third of the time, by herself. That kind of usefulness in a place like this means you stay busy. It’s a big deal, her running Control for us.

“Bout time, Deel.” She doesn’t look up from her code. “You’ve got the Grade 3 suits today for maximum time in the field. Eight hours of pure air and another four if your purifiers hold.” She finally looks at me, arching an eyebrow under her mousy brown bangs. “Try not to push it, though.” She cut her hair. Looks almost normal again. Hasn’t looked so — happy isn’t the word — all right since Danny got caught out a few months back. I tell her it suits her. She tells me to get my mask on, then presses the button at my wrist to pressurize my suit.

The ambient world disappears with a hiss and a click. My ears pop, and I breathe in the window-cleaner-scented air.

“Big day today,” Virge’s voice crackles in my ear.

“Just come back safe,” Manx says, pressing the last few buttons on the terminal. She retreats through the airlock hatch and the door whooshes closed behind her. Red flashing lights. Klaxons. Then the far wall opens up and the sunlight spills in. We throw up our gloved hands to block out the sun, then glance at each other and trudge out into the Grey.


The suits are heavy, but the air feels light today. Clear skies. Endless azure stretching off into the distance, meeting a solid line of grey at the horizon, grey which continues all the way back to our feet. Can’t even see Installation 17 behind us any more. Been a long time since anybody ventured this far out.

Since Danny, we all think, but nobody says.

“Any sign yet?” Virge asks, her voice not particularly hopeful.

Not that he needs to, but Satch checks the scanner. “Not for a few miles yet.”

We plod on in silence.


It’s impossible to tell in the suit, but it almost looks like there’s a little breeze out here, blowing little wisps of grey dust around in swirling eddies.

“You guys see that?” I point as a fine, pale mist washes across our feet.

“Is that … wind?”

It’s too much to hope for, but there it is. There hasn’t been wind or weather since the world went Grey.

“If that’s wind…” Satch takes his time. He knows the danger of hope. “Then Danny might have been right.”

Virge knows better. “Right or not, he still died out here. Like we will if we get caught up chasing wind.”

“We should get a sample of that dust,” I say. Because if there’s still wind, then maybe the island is real, too. I’m an idiot for thinking it. The island is a myth, a fairy tale. Some land out there in the wastes, untouched by the Grey, unclaimed by it. Something in the air that keeps it pure. A place we could live like humans again.

“Stick to the mission,” Virge barks.

Satch stops walking. “Virge. You know what it could mean.”

“What I know,” Virge stops as well, pulling up right in Satch’s face, “is that Deel’s already picked up some bugs.”

She points. We look. There’s a faint steam rising from the toe of my boot.

“Shit. How long?”

“Just the last twenty minutes or so. Nothing to stress about.” She fixes Satch with a steely look. “But let’s not forget that time is a factor. Besides. Any sample would just be goo by the time we got it back.”

She’s right, of course.


The sonar pings are getting closer and closer. Danny’s tracker. The tiny transmitter encased in a shell of ultra-dense, non-reactive alloy. If we’re lucky, it’ll be all that’s left. I’ve seen my share of humans consumed by the Grey. Flesh goes quick, but the bones can resist for a while. They look like skeletons made of ash.


Danny’s just a bump in the goo. Wouldn’t even know he was there if not for the pinging of the sonar on Satch’s tracker. But here he is, at our feet. My boot is smoldering steadily now, up to the ankle. It’s lucky we found him — I’ve only got a few more hours to get back before the bugs got through.

Usually we’d draw straws before digging into the goo, but I’m already contaminated, so before anybody can argue, I plunge my mitts into the muck. It’s weird, the goo — solid as a rock underfoot, but dig into it or stand still for too long, it’s like riverbank mud. Goopy and sticky and awful, and I try not to think about whether I’m rooting around in Danny’s chest cavity or his skull. Then I feel it: a solid little walnut buried in the sludge. I pull it out, hold it aloft, grin through the fog in my mask.

“Let’s head back,” Virge says.


Our gear goes into the incinerator, and I get an extra-long hose-down. Two layers of my boot and most of the glove-arm of my suit was chewed up and crumbling away by the time we got back. Still, I get the all clear.

Manx sits in Control, staring off at something invisible about five feet in front of her. Her eyes are kissed with red and puffy. She looks like a marionette somebody threw into a chair. I sit down by the door and make a big deal of not looking at her.

Finally she speaks.

“You found him.”

“We found him.”

“He recorded a message in his tracker. If he was telling the truth, his feet had already gone Grey and he knew he wasn’t going to make it.”

Knowing Danny, he was probably a lot worse off than that, but there’s no sense saying that to Manx. “Did he find it? The island?”

Tears well in her eyes again, and I know I shouldn’t have asked. The island is too much to hope for.

“He found it.” And Manx looks at me with the wrong emotion in her eyes. There should be joy. We should be celebrating, calling the council, hell, sounding the all-call. But she looks dead inside. “He found it, but he was already contaminated, and he brought the Grey with him.” She bites back a sob. “We destroyed it, just like we destroyed everything else.”

I pat her shoulder a little aimlessly, but there’s nothing to say. I wonder if the council will spread the word that Danny found the island.  Probably not. We’re all dead anyway, but at least we can pretend we have something to live for.

All that Glitters

It’s modern-day alchemy. Maybe you’ve heard this.

It turns out that everybody’s intrinsic value has increased by about $13 a year, thanks to the trace amounts of precious metals in their poop. That’s right, there are studies (imagine doing those studies) that show that over a 1-year period, the “waste” collected from 1 million Americans is worth $13 million. Which is great, if you happen to be the owner of a waste processing plant when they figure out how to harvest this “gold”. For the average person, it’s just more money going down the toilet, pun absolutely intended.

And while this is fascinating, if perhaps not in the “dinner conversation” kind of fascinating, the bigger (and more troubling) issue that it raises is: where is this stuff coming from? Is big agro putting vanadium in our corn? Are the pasteurizing plants doping milk with platinum? Did everybody in the country suddenly succumb to somnambulant pica? Now we’re all chowing down on nuts and bolts in our sleep?

No, I’m not here to toss out conspiracy theories. The fact is, everything is a part of everything. The crude matter that composes our bodies is, at the fundamental level, the same matter that spawned in the maw of the Big Bang. We are made of the ashes of stars, so it’s no great shock that we’ve got little bits and pieces of decomposed universes sloshing around in our systems. And to be honest, it’s no great shock that scientists are studying poop. Given overpopulation and the sustainability issues plaguing us, we have to find as many ways as possible to stretch out resources and cut down on waste. Refining poop is a win-win, if you can pinch it off. Plus, make no mistake, they’ll find a way to make money off of it. Process enough poop, and you can turn your refining plant into a literal goldmine. Actually, this reminds me of this little treat from a few months back, in which Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates drink water created from a processing plant that is self-sustaining and actually creates electricity … FROM POOP.

Fact is, this makes for a great story. And who knows, in ten years, you might just work at a processing plant, refining feces for precious metals.

There are jokes to be made here, but I’m a little myopic today. Look, diapers are a big part of my life right now, and when the only tool at your disposal is a diaper and a bag of wipes, everything looks like a pile of poop, right? All I can think about upon hearing this story are the untold riches slipping through my fingers every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call my accountant to move all my money into poop futures.

No Time Like the Present

We live in the past.


Not just in the retrospective, nostalgic, times-were-better-when sense of the past. Literally, we can’t escape the past. Because information can only travel as fast as the speed of light, less the resistance of our crude organic matter, what we perceive as the present is a moment that is already a dim memory of the cosmos.

Of course, we’re not that far in the past. Only milliseconds, really. But the phenomenon stretches out into infinity the farther away the observed thing is from the observer. In fact, astronomers have recently concluded that their telescopes are looking at some objects so distant that the light from those objects was literally born in the same instant that our universe was. Which baffles the mind, really. Because here we are, the result of billions of years of senseless collisions of quarks and particles hurtling through the void, and we can simultaneously perceive the (almost) present and the beginning of knowable time.

Knowable for now, anyway.

The cool thing about science (and, incidentally, why I long ago decided that I much prefer science to religion) is that science can change its mind about things. Can, and does, actually. The scientific community is willing to reverse any number of preconceived notions the moment they learn a thing that disagrees with those notions. Which is just one reason among many that nerds around the world were (and still are) so excited about the work going on with the Large Hadron Collider. Every day, scientists are pushing the boundaries of the things we know. Sometimes, they learn what they expect to learn. Sometimes, their discoveries force them to virtually rewrite history. But what science doesn’t do is disagree with what’s staring it in the face. Science doesn’t sit there–as humans are wont to do–and say, “no, we don’t like what we’ve discovered here, that doesn’t jive with what we believe… let’s ignore it until it goes away.”

But I got off topic. Most animals are creatures that live in the present. They act on instinct. A wolf in the wild doesn’t ponder what its dad was thinking when it chomped him in the neck that one time as a child. The wolf goes for the kill because the kill is there, NOW. Humans, on the other hand, reach ceaselessly for the past. We romanticize. Reminisce. But the fact is, we don’t know what now looks like.

Not only can we not process information that fast–literally barring us from ever existing in the real, crackling cutting edge of the now–but everything we see and learn and experience gets filtered through the lens of the past, because we can’t help remembering it.

I feel like I’m drifting again. I’ve got a wicked cold setting in and it’s clouding what’s already a pretty murky train of thought. I think my point is this:

What would our world be like if we could experience the present? The wicked, razor-sharp edge of perception, the collisions of all the being and nothingness that drives everything in the universe? All thought takes time. Reacting takes time. Speaking to a friend takes time. If we could make perception and communication truly instantaneous, where would that put us?

I was going to try to answer my own question, but I don’t know if my disease-addled brain can manage it, so I’m going to leave it there. Maybe I’ll read this in the morning and realize that this entire ramble was just a tailspin down a condemned rabbit hole.

Or maybe it’s one I’ve fallen down before.

oooOOOOOOooo no, probably not.

See, this is what happens when pressure on my brain from an accumulation of mucus mixes with a cocktail of pseudoephedrine and wine. The safeguards shut down and the Id-Writer breaks loose and trashes the place.

Sigh. The prompt was “present.” Christmas is coming. Presents are awesome. The end.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

The Minivan Effect

There was a great episode of House, MD wherein Greg House was opining that people’s treatment of an individual lies flatly on a sliding scale related to the empathy they feel for that person.  More specifically, that because he walks with a cane, he can get away with being an enormous asgard-hole and never catch crap for it.  He then goes on to (deliberately) crush a woman’s toe with his cane and beams a smile at his friend, Wilson, as she apologizes to him for being in his way.  Great moment, great show, at least in the early seasons (ah, television shows, why do you ever make your late seasons?  Stop early before it turns to sharknado).  In fact, I could go on and on about the reasons that show was tops on my list while it was on the air, and that’s even without pointing out that the entire show is inspired by Sherlock Holmes, one of the greatest fictional characters in existence.

But anyway.  As usual, House was right.  And not just about Lupus.  (It’s never Lupus.)  If people feel sorry for you, they’re much less likely to dump on you.  Now, me being a heteronormative white male living on privileged white male island, what could I know about people feeling sorry for me?

I drive a minivan.Read More »

The Stupidity Constant

I have a theory.

It’s more correct for me to say that my wife had the theory.  All fairness, she thought it first, all I did was flesh it out.  But it’s brilliant, and it fits, and it has changed the way I think about my life in the past twelve hours.

The theory is this:  Our house — more specifically perhaps, our household — is a closed system of stupidity.  There is a constant amount of stupidity contained within the space inhabited by my wife and I and our son and our animals, and that amount of stupidity cannot be altered by the comings or goings of any of us in or out of the house.

Let’s review the relevant data.

Jasper was our dumbest dog.  Our dumbest critter, really, but “dumb dog” has a lovely alliteration to it that I can’t stay away from, so there you have it.  He’d run into the glass door.  He’d go into a yip-dog frenzy when the mailman or other interlopers approached the house, or in fact drove past the house.  He’d follow at our feet, pardon the expression, like a lost puppy, any time we had any sort of food, in the hopes that we’d take pity and give him a bit, knowing full well that we wouldn’t.  He would jump up and down like he was spring-loaded on any new visitor to the house despite our multiple attempts to divest him of this behavior.  He’d follow the sprout around and take food from his hand even though we would fly into a murderous rage when he did so.

A sweet dog, make no mistake – but dumb as bricks.  Well, Jasper couldn’t stay with us.  Without getting into too much detail, he and the sprout were not a good match, so my family generously adopted him.  So he left us.  (We still see him on the weekends and he’s doing awesome.)

Now, it’s not a thought that we had consciously at the time, but in retrospect we kind of took it for granted that with Jasper leaving, the incidences of, ah, stupid behavior would lessen.  But the Stupidity Constant began quickly to stabilize the closed system without us even knowing.

Little by little, our other animals began acting dumber.  Penny, our other dog, for example, has begun pushing her food bowl all over the place and spilling food everywhere.  She’s always been a little skittish during storms.  Lately, though, she goes into fits during storms, trying to squeeze into tiny cubbies and knocking over furniture, chewing on shoes and baby toys, shaking like she’s stuck in that paint mixing machine at the Home Depot.  Now, she’s never liked storms, but since Jasper is gone, she descends into idiocy and terror whenever it begins to rain.  She barks and howls when strangers come to the house.  She runs under our feet tirelessly; my wife and I have tripped over her more times than we can count.

Okay, so maybe she’s upset over the absence of her “brother”, which I’d buy, if it had not been six months.  But she’s getting worse, not better.

Then, there are the cats.  The Alpha (yes, cats have Alphas, I know, I thought it was insane when I heard it, but trust me, this cat is an Alpha), Marty, has always been a bit, hmm, special.  But lately he, too, has been dumber, for lack of a more eloquent term.  His most egregious ridiculous behavior is one I can find no explanation for.  He’ll splash in the water bowl, trying to tip it over, leaving sad little stupid pools of water all over our brand new $2000 floors.  Why does he do this?  TO INFURIATE US.  He’s also more guilty than ever of running under our feet, especially on the stairs.

Thing is, the stupidity rotates.  When Penny is low-key, the cats are all keyed up.  When the cats are chilled, Penny starts chewing on the baseboards.  No, really, she’s chewed up baseboards.

Not the markings of an intelligent creature.
Not the markings of an intelligent creature.

Anyway, we were talking about it this morning while cleaning up the latest slurry of puppy chow (spilled by the dog) and water (spilled by the cat) and I tripped over a different cat while coming back through the living room and my dear wife said, “god, I swear, the other animals are getting dumber.”

And it clicked.

“Like the house is a closed system of stupidity?” I said.  She nodded.  “Meaning that there is a fixed amount of stupidity that has to exist in the house at any given time?”

“Exactly,” she said.

“In other words,” I said, feeling brilliant and self-important, “as Jeff Goldblum so eloquently put it in Jurassic Park, the stupid will find a way?”

Both our eyes got wide as the truth broke over us like my brother breaking wind: sudden, inescapable, undeniable.  Oh, and simultaneously impressive and terrible.  Our household is a time-space anomaly, a Grand Central Station of idiotic animal behavior.

I have suspicions that a similar anomalous field exists in a bubble of about a hundred feet around my person, but one theory at a time.