Using the Oceans

Tom Flagg stood on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. John Hay climbed the trail from the parking lot and joined him. They faced an open expanse of gray water and hazy sky, a light onshore breeze ushering in the evening. The smoothest line in nature stretched north and south in front of them, a horizon of water meeting twilight sky. The setting sun was buried in low clouds layered over the water, the air above the two men clear but washed out to a fading white that graded into pale pink in the west.

“It’s official,” Hay said. “I just got word. The U.N. voted with us. The oceans are legally dead. Including this one. Including all of them. U.S. environmental laws involving salt-water bodies become inoperative at the start of next month.”

“So I have four weeks to find a life form out there consisting of more than a single cell,” Tom said.

“Sorry, Tom. None of you have found anything yet and I don’t believe that any of you will. The oceans of the world are well and truly sterile. Nothing could live in them at this point. Governments can now treat the sea as one huge combination dump and sewer. We’re mobilized to clean the planet as it’s never been cleaned before. The Earth will become pristine again.”

“The land masses, not the Earth.”

“Whatever. Junkyards? Toxic waste? Radioactive waste?  It can all go right into the drink now. Along with the sewage produced by ten billion souls. When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow. Our five ships are taking the Molokai Trench.”

Hay gave him a pat on the back and turned back to the trail, smiling in anticipation.

“Come down before dark,” he said.

Flagg stood where he was, gazing down on the water, an ocean of it. So much water. From the cliff, in the failing light, he could see patterns on its surface produced by currents and the wind. Lines of whitecaps. The boom of surf came to him, almost a whisper. He tried to understand, to picture, to imagine this mass of water without life in it. Or, rather, with the same collection of one-celled organisms, bacteria, and viruses that might have been found in any half-filled bathtub.

He turned away, shoulders slumped.

That evening, he flew to Kahalui and drove over to Lahaina to join his crew. Their vessel headed out to the Trench at first light. Standing in the prow as they passed Lanai, Flagg remembered the whale-watching tour boats still active when he was a boy.

With their boats in position, his crew deployed their AUVs. One week later they retrieved something from the depths that was alive and multicellular, although barely. After collecting additional samples and celebrating with beer and hard whiskey, they packaged the creatures and Flagg flew to Scripps and then on to Washington with them.

John Hay came to him in the Capitol.

“I know better than to wave money at you,” he said to Flagg.

“Considering that the future of the planet is in question, bribery seems rather petty,” Tom said.

“And I won’t try to sell you my vision, either,” John said. “I’ve done that enough. You should know, though, that others can be bribed. The appeal of a clean planet…”

“Clean land. Filthy water.”

“…allows for a great deal of moral flexibility.”

“We found life in the ocean. Period.”

“This is Washington,” John said. “Period.”

Later in the week, Congress voted to petition the UNOH in New York for permission to exempt the new life form from protection. Congress reasoned that if anything could survive in the polluted waters around Hawaii, it might in fact benefit from the pending regulations that would allow the oceans to serve as a gigantic trash receptacle and cesspool.

Back on the cliff in the West, Flagg and Hay watched a barge train of filth wallowing west, away from the sheltering bay.

“We’re going to try again,” Tom said.

“Did you know that it’s illegal now to go out in a sailboat without wearing a hazmat suit?” Hay said.  “Some sectors, you can’t go out at all… Tom, you could find mermaids out there and the law wouldn’t change. We’ve gone too far.”

“I don’t believe that,” Flagg said.

“The truth is, your group wasn’t the first to find life. The land forces are too strong politically at this point for it to make any difference anymore.”

“I don’t notice Ameria turning into the Garden of Eden,” Flagg said. “Now that pollutants can be consigned to the water, manufacturers are more lax than ever. They claim that they’re capturing the junk spewing into the air, but most of it, they aren’t.”

“It’ll take a little time,” Hay said. “There is talk of designating certain areas of land and atmosphere as so compromised that now we can use them like we’re using the oceans.”

Flagg found himself praying that the sea levels would rise high enough for the water to take revenge, but he didn’t voice the thought.