This is the twentieth section of the second chapter of Sonnets from a Proton. The novel starts here.
The next section is here.
Martin didn’t know what he should expect, a calm serene landscape showing raw nature? Raw metal and rock waiting to be tamed by life? Massive industrious activity? Whatever he should have expected he wasn’t prepared for the surreal mix of sights he saw in those first few days out on the plate. The first day passed quickly enough, it seemed that near the entrance the Habitat had concentrated on creating an almost English country garden look. Flowers abounded, confused at how quickly this had happened he quizzed the Habitat through one of the drones. Apparently the Habitat had been to thousands of garden centres across Earth and bought out much of their stock. An unusual tactic for the Habitat which until now had always raided the wild for its specimens. Apparently the new plates were too large a scale for this without causing significant damage to the newly released ecosystem on Earth so artificial cultivation it was.
Towards the end of the first day and start of the second day of exploration the landscape began to change. The Habitat had clearly started to run out of soil that it had either imported from Earth or produced over the past few years and you could see the evidence of the plans that Martin and the Habitat had formulated together. Algae had been very easy to grow in huge quantities with minimal dependencies and so over the past few years the Habitat had grown hast quantities of it. Much of it had been used for compost to try and produce as much soil as possible, but even with the seemingly unlimited resources the Habitat could call on there was a limit to how much quality soil they could produce. This left them with a simple solution; sand was available in effectively unlimited quantities as were water, sunlight and algae so here the landscape started to change into what Martin dubbed the Great Experiment. It was important the great experiment started next to the country garden, they needed a rich ecosystem that was known to be stable and reliable and filled with their best specimens next to the chaos that the great experiment would cause. Martin would have liked to have started with trees or at the very least shrubs to form a barrier of some form, but established trees were too hard to transplant in any significant quantity and the ground they would have to grow in was too poor for saplings to start. Even calling it ground Martin felt was too much of a compliment, sand mixed with dead slightly decomposed algae. Yes organic matter was essential but this was an act close to desperation. Small scale trials had shown that with careful seeding and control this mix could prove a very successful base for grasses and even - with extensive irrigation – suitable for more useful crops such as corn, vines and even certain root vegetables; but as a base for an entire ecosystem it was severely lacking. Ahead of him was the first of the fields that they had planned. Although in preparation for this they had in the city been able to produce a few thousand square meters of grass in artificial conditions. This had been transplanted to a number of fields and laid out in what resembled a checkerboard pattern. Small squares of grass were surrounded by large amounts of the sand algae mix. The idea was that these islands of life would then be able to spread rapidly, although on this field there was little being left to chance and Martin could see drones flying around spreading grass seed over the barren ground. Strangely enough at least from Martin’s eyes was the encouraging of what he considered weeds. Dandelions and nettles were being planted by a number of drones.
Martin had encouraged the Habitat to import animals into this environment, in his mind’s eye he could picture a heard of cows being unloaded from a cattle truck. However that was foolishly ambitious. When the rabbits from the city’s park – and park was all it was compared to this – discovered this vast expanse then the ecosystem would have a shock. At that part of course you could start to introduce predators, but until the plant ecosystem was more secure that seemed foolhardy.
Retiring below ground for the night Martin saw that just like what he thought of as the City was repeated underground here too. In this case though the Habitat had clearly built this in a rush, or at least not bothered to decorate the cityscape here. Vast open caverns led into one another with no distinguishing features other than transport tubes linking them together. Each of these spaces could hold an entire earth city big enough for millions in itself and they were all as far as Martin could tell empty. He picked one cavern at random to rest for the night and before he could ask the Habitat brought in what must have been pre-fabricated housing units and around him within minutes a house was built.
In the morning he awoke to a new cityscape fully populated with empty houses, a strange ghost city looking not so much abandoned because it was too new for that, but instead unwanted. The Habitat later explained that it had done this because a new city was needed somewhere eventually and once it had broken virgin ground in this chamber to make his rest home for the night then it might as well have completed the city.
On the third day Martin headed above ground again and further out the problems of this rapid expansion and the various things tried in the great experiment became very obvious. Here at this greater distance out the lack of biological matter was really becoming obvious sand and rocks dominated the landscape. Occasional areas still had the algae mixed in and seedlings planted, but it was obvious here just how artificial it was. No attempt had been made to hide the irrigation tubes and the occasional sparse vegetation although healthy, looked very alone.
The intense irrigation intended to give any vegetation the maximum benefit and to compensate for the excess of sand was having a disturbing effect on the ground out here. Without a root system to hold it together and with all the moisture being used for irrigation rivers were beginning to form in the saturated ground. Despite the treacherous footing Martin decided to follow one of these to see a lake.
As expected the lake was an oasis of life this time though because of the ease with which the Habitat had been able to overstock the lakes in the original biosphere when it had been contained to the city. Whereas previously every lake had been packed full of fish as you would see in an aquarium, here they had just as much food but huge amounts of space. The Habitat had carefully manipulated the fishes breeding cycles so that the spawning season coincided with this tremendous expansion of available space. With the thousands of eggs that the fish laid, an excess of food and few predators the contrast between the apparent desert behind him and this lake in front of him was spectacular. It wasn’t just the fish population that had exploded; shrimp, crabs, crayfish and seemingly a million different forms of flying insect all seemed to be on a geometric expansion.
This was the part of the experiment that had worried him but yet to him the most interesting. He was worried about the unstable ecology that they had built here, but fundamentally the point was that this was a learning experience for the next great expansion. The Habitat hadn’t been that clear on what was next but what he did know is that the city had a surface area approximating a moderate sized country and combined with the underground city and a population density similar to the largest cities on Earth had the potential to pack the entire human population into that space. This first stage of expansion had increased the Habitat’s areas substantially so that it now had a surface area approximately that of the United States; the next stage of expansion that would complete the Habitat’s hoop would expand the surface area to approximately twenty times that of Earth. After that if more space was needed or desired the Habitat would expand its width giving a surface area up to thousands of times that of Earth’s, with a potential population measured in the hundred of Trillions. By that point the water content of the ort cloud would start to limit the population and the solar system would have reached its limit without mining the planets which the habitat had expressed a distaste for doing.
This potential for massive expansion was at the heart of it the point of the great experiment; how to turn a barren landscape into a thriving ecosystem in as short a time as possible. Yes this local ecosystem here was clearly unstable and may well die off, but the theory went that this didn’t matter because even if it did die, it would provide much needed biological matter for the next wave of life to come here. As long as the ecosystem was active and being pushed to its limits then the final rich ecosystem would be reached sooner. Also despite the fact that space had provided the Habitat with effectively unlimited supplies of rock, sand and water, and the Habitat could supply as much artificial light and robotic labour as could be used, life on Earth wasn’t adapted to this form of rapid expansion into a sterile environment and this was one massive experiment. The lake in front of him may have been teaming with life that had been rapidly bred and introduced but it felt so unstable.
Almost reading his thoughts before he had them, a drone came up to him and handed him some scuba gear. Underwater here was unlike anything he had experienced before. While lots of effort had clearly been made in making underwater sand banks and a variety of rocky environments had been built it was impossible to escape how artificial this underwater world was. The metal floor was sculpted to hold the sandbanks in place and although the water was clear and the sand pristine as a healthy lake should have been, that was it. What should have looked healthy was made to look false by the very occasional, but very obvious lack of any dirt. As he swim further and deeper the unreality was pushed in his face by something you would never see on earth in a normal lake, a huge underwater lighting ring. Martin knew it made sense, a very real limit on the amount of life that can be supported by a volume of water is the amount of light that enters it. Therefore it was perfectly logical – if you had power to spare as the Habitat did – to install such underwater lighting to expand the livable region. Also visible were the final nail in the coffin that confirmed this was nothing more than a giant artificial aquarium, air was being piped down and was bubbling through outlets near to the lighting ring. Disillusioned by this Martin swam back to the surface and asked to be taken home. He’d seen enough of this mockery of nature for now, soon it would settle down, but he couldn’t watch it until the first phase was complete.