As climate change wreaks havoc on the earth and the fate of humanity grows dire, a scientist makes a plan to save humanity that would shame the devil.
When I was a child, there were kelp forests that stretched for miles, a whole underwater world to get lost in. By the time I was older and had children of my own, these were gone, a vast array of undersea creatures snatched away along with them. All of it vanished almost before anyone paid heed. Or rather, no, some did, but only a few, and by the time more did it was too late: the remaining members of each species were not numerous enough to propagate. The last few were tagged and tracked and then, when they died, stuffed and preserved.
Now I am very old. My hands are liver spotted, palsied. My sons left me decades ago to pursue their own lives. My wife acquired a cancer, one of the less friendly ones, and quickly spun her way off this mortal coil.
Now every kind of forest is nearly gone, not just those underwater. Without trees, the remaining air is slowly turning toxic. This is the world we have now.
Things changed for me once I clearly saw the state of the world.
I saw the kelp forests die, the creatures that depended on them expiring in turn. I was witness, by video feed, to the slow desolation of complex marine life.
This was only one concrete manifestation of many larger problems: a growing carbon footprint, a rapidly spreading hole in the ozone layer, climbing temperatures, rising sea levels, millions of deaths in developing countries from famine and flood and disease.
Crops failed. The companies that had genetically engineered them solicited government funds to investigate why their proprietary crops now refused to reproduce. They spent billions in public money, their CEOs receiving huge bonuses, and learned nothing.
It was almost too much to think about.
And so, mostly, we didn’t.
But those who did largely thought in terms of what profit could be squeezed out. How could global collapse be monetized? How much money was there to be made by injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere for the purpose of so-called climate restoration? Did such injection really work? No, not exactly: the sulfate did not remain airborne as long as hoped, and there were too many side effects, such as dramatic increases in asthma wherever particles reached the ground, unprecedented pulmonary failure, and lung cancer. In addition, the climate was not restored. Then the question became how much more money can be made by carrying on injecting aerosols before people realize that it doesn’t do any good?
Now people are developing solar-powered machines to try to renew the air in a way that trees once did naturally. One of my two sons is involved in this. Will it work? When I ask him, he shrugs his shoulders. Yes, probably, he says, but he does not imagine that it will work fast enough. It is likely that millions will die gasping before conditions equalize and, slowly, begin to reverse. Doesn’t that worry you? I ask. Yes, he claims, of course. But I will be among those closest to the machines. I am sure to have air to breathe.
But what about all the others who will not? I ask.
He is a horrible boy. A monster.
My other son is also a horrible boy. He has cast his lot in with those who have decided to flee the planet altogether. They are building vessels as massive as cities that circle in the exosphere. They will be self-sufficient, he tells me, with solar sails that unfurl for miles, powered by the rays of the sun and, eventually, once they are traveling to exoplanets likely to support life, by distant stars.
But how many people can they possibly hold? I ask. How many vessels will you need to accommodate everyone?
At first he looks confused. Everybody? But nobody ever intended that!
How many for just one country’s worth, then? A small one, say Luxembourg?
He laughs. We can’t even manage a city, he says. There are three ships, he explains. They hold twenty thousand people each, the majority of passengers cryogenically preserved in storage. So, sixty thousand in all.
So for every person chosen, 200,000 people will die.
He purses his lips, calculating. Closer to 220,000, he corrects.
How will you choose?
Choose? he says. Dad, they’re already chosen. The very, very wealthy have purchased passage. Everyone else will stay here and die.
What about you? I ask. You’re not wealthy.
I have needed and uncommon skills. I’m necessary, which is even better. The very, very wealthy, he amends, and those who have made themselves necessary to them.
In other words, those who have sold their souls to the devil.
How can you make a choice like that? Decide that you are the solitary individual among hundreds of thousands who deserves to live? Or not even deserves: simply gets to. Wasn’t it such choices that got us into this mess in the first place?
There is of course the small consolation that my son will be surrounded by the privileged and wealthy. In other words, by sociopaths. He may well survive but, with any luck, he will be miserable.
Though he is, no doubt, a sociopath himself.
At what point, seeing how little is being done—seeing how little changes even when people do notice the world is dying, seeing how little changes no matter which political party brandishes its readymade moral indignation and seizes power, seeing the way that corporations who have taken on the rights of people continue to do as they please—do you decide to take matters into your own hands?
And when you do decide to do so, what can you possibly do?
I have not sold my soul to the devil. I used to think that there was just a simple either/or: either sell your soul or wait to wither away and die. But I have come to realize there is a third possibility: to become the devil himself. Do that, and all sold souls shall belong to you.
I have not spoken about who I was in life, what my profession was. I was a researcher, someone trained to take incipient genetic material and carefully snip and graft it so as to ensure that a child would be born with, say, eyes one color rather than another: blue eyes rather than brown or brown rather than blue—though, to be frank, it was always blue eyes that were wanted. My wife and I chose not to manipulate the genetic code of the embryos that would become our children precisely because of what my profession was. We were worried that in the process of establishing certain visible traits we would create invisible changes and flaws that would render our children monstrous. As it turns out, we needn’t have worried: my sons became monstrous all on their own.
When my wife was afflicted with cancer, I put my skills to work in a different way. Perhaps, I told myself, there is a way to manipulate her cells rather than simply trying to kill them off with chemicals or radiation, a way to reshape them back to health. Her cancer was not the sort that people ever survive: a mucosal melanoma deep within her body that had already begun to leak its way into her organs. She knew that there was no chance for her, and thus she volunteered to be my test subject.
I transferred some of her cancerous cells into petri dishes and grew them. I experimented with different means of chemically aided reconfiguration, combined with snipping and grafting. At first, this either killed everything off or the cancerous cells thrived, but then one day I hit upon a process that did neither. Instead, it changed the cells, made them something quite different in composition from what they had originally been but yet apparently healthy and cancer-free.
I tried to share this discovery with my wife but, though still alive, she was no longer responsive, no longer aware. And so, I shared it with her the only way I knew how: I injected a miniscule amount of the solution that had successfully transformed the cells into her body.
The beginning of the world, I believe, must have been a marvelous place, every being transient and fluid, each mode of life rapidly changing form from one generation to the next. As time went on, genetic safeguards formed, keeping creatures from being able to reproduce indiscriminately. But in those early halcyon days, the coding was written more lightly into our bodies, was more readily mutable. The solution I had developed, I knew, was something that could take us back a little closer to the beginning of the world.
As the solution began to affect her, I watched my dying wife change. Her skin shifted color and began to fleck with something that it took some time for me to realize were rudimentary scales. Her eyes opened and I saw how they had filmed over. And then, abruptly, her transformation seemed to stabilize. She choked, and then she died. I buried her and sunk into my grief.
That was twenty years ago. Once I crawled out of my grief, I tendered my notice and retreated here to continue to refine and develop my solution in privacy. I experimented with animals at first: rats, since I could breed them so quickly. It took twelve years before I had calibrated the solution sufficiently for a transformed rat to stay indefinitely alive. Its skin changed, its coat falling out to be replaced by a mucosal layer. Its muscles knotted and it became deformed in a way that, as I became accustomed to it, struck me as not entirely displeasing to the eye.
Through these experiments I realized I needed very little of the solution to transform a body. Less than a drop was more than enough, and even with a lesser amount the transformation merely took place more slowly and in a more orderly fashion. The resultant rats were a new species, rat-like in some ways but not in others. Like tardigrades, they were extremely resistant to heat and cold, could render themselves dormant if there was a lack of food and water. They could, I discovered, remain inert and motionless for days, returning to life only once food and water were available again. I had evolved a creature that could survive in our dying world.
Soon I made the decision to put one of these transformed rats into a cage with a normal rat. The transformed rat had not been aggressive with me, and I hoped it might remain so even when confronted with a member of its former species. But expectation was not enough. I needed to see what a new rat would actually do, as a step toward understanding what would happen if I were to release it into the wild.
And so I gently placed the new rat into one side of a cage with a removable and perforated plexiglass wall down its middle. Into the other side I placed a normal rat.
At first the pair merely sniffed at each other through the plexiglass. The normal rat kept moving toward the plexiglass and then turning away, as if it were both drawn to the new rat and afraid of it. The new rat stayed near the plexiglass, attentive but relaxed. Its behavior did not strike me as threatening. And yet when I removed the plexiglass wall, the new rat darted forward faster than I realized it was capable of moving. The other rat tried to escape, but the new rat was too fast for it. In an instant, it had pinned the normal rat to the floor of the cage and had bitten the nape of its neck.
I began to lift the lid to separate the two rats, but in the few seconds it took me to undo the latches, the new rat had already let go. It moved unconcernedly back to its own side of the cage. And so, instead of removing it, I simply slid the plexiglass wall back into place.
I examined the normal rat, which seemed shaken but more or less all right. The bite was superficial. It had broken the skin and drawn a little blood, but did not seem to have damaged the normal rat permanently.
I fed both rats and left for the night. When I returned the next morning, I discovered that there was not just one transformed rat, but two.
Which was how I discovered that my solution was more like a contagion, that it could be spread from creature to creature without my intervention.
I had always been cautious about how I worked with my test subjects, but after that incident I became even more so. A simple bite, I realized, even a lick or a sneeze, might be sufficient to pass the solution along to me. I would be transformed, would become something other than human.
I was not ready for this. And so, after making careful notes, I incinerated my new rats, scrubbed down my laboratory, and rebuilt it to minimize the chance of the solution spreading. And then, wearing hazard suits, we began over, with a vengeance.
I experimented with rats until I had learned everything there was to learn from them. Then I tried with a dog, a mongrel I caught by feeding it hamburger. The solution transformed it, its snout shortening, its whiskers thickening into flexible spines, its fur being replaced by a feathery down. It was at once similar to and different from a dog. When I placed a normal dog in its presence, it did the same thing the new rat had done: it pounced upon it and held it down long enough to puncture its skin with its teeth. The way it went about this made me feel that, on some level, it knew what it was doing. That it was deliberately making another member of its own kind.
I will not bother to enumerate all the creatures I transformed. I still have most of them; I keep them largely dormant and inert in their cages, waiting for the moment when I will release them. For surely that moment will come—it is our only hope for saving most species—but it hasn’t yet. Though it will soon.
But let me mention my most recent experiment, the one which involved my daughter.
I have not indicated I had a daughter, but this is simply out of long habit, not from an intent to deceive. My daughter had been with me, participating in my research, from the beginning. Of my children, she was the only one who desired to follow in my footsteps. She had been there beside me when I had first developed the formula, and it had been she who had encouraged me to inject it into her dying mother. She was the only other one to know about the fruits of my research. I have not mentioned her because, initially, realizing the risks of such illegal research, we decided to hide the fact that she was involved. After her mother’s death, she worked with me, but secretly. Indeed, we staged a death for her, not telling even my sons the truth. Even now her brothers have no idea she is alive.
For several years I had known I would eventually need to move on to a human subject. At first, I thought the subject would be me and that my daughter would continue our research alone, but then we discovered that she had inherited a susceptibility for the cancer that had taken my wife and that, indeed, the cancer had already begun to make its home within her. This necessitated a change of plans.
I strapped her to a chair. I asked her again if she was sure, and again she claimed she was. For a long time I stared at her, and then I asked her to open her mouth and stick out her tongue. I placed a droplet of the solution on the tip of it, and then I stepped back and awaited her transformation.
It was not as quick as it had been with the other creatures. It happened over the course of three days. At first, for the sake of our research, she reported what she was experiencing, what she was feeling. A day and a half in, she suddenly faltered and ceased to speak. Her hair fell out in the first few hours. Like her mother, she grew scales over her skin, and her fingers became blunter and webbed. The structure of her head changed, each of her eyes drifting an inch or two toward the sides. And then she began to gasp, and three thin slits on either side of her neck arched open to reveal a set of deep-red fluted gills within. She slapped her throat, gasped again.
“You need water?” I asked.
She nodded, desperately.
At first I reached out to untie her bonds, but seeing how she fell still when my gloved hands approached and remembering what the new rat had done to the normal rat, I had second thoughts. Instead I grabbed her chair by its back and, without releasing her, dragged it along behind me, pulling her toward the laboratory’s exit.
I had to slit the protective seal wider to get her through. She was gasping now and choking, and had started to move slower and slower. Had I not seen how my previous animal subjects had responded I would have believed she was dying, but I knew she was not dying. Rather, deprived of what she needed, she was going dormant.
The legs of the chair squeaked against the floor as I dragged it down the hall. Inside the hazard suit, the air felt clammy and my body grew slick with sweat. By the time I made it down the hall and into the bathroom, her body resembled a corpse. For a brief instant I wondered if I hadn’t misjudged, if her body was not as resilient as a dog’s or a rat’s. And then I upended her chair and dumped her into the clawfoot tub.
Her head struck the side of the tub on the way down, but she did not seem to notice. She lay face down, neck awkwardly bent, head against the porcelain. She was still strapped to the chair, its legs and hers jutting well past the tub’s lip. She was not moving.
I turned on the shower and directed it to wash over her. Still she did not move. I placed the stopper in the drain and watched the water lap against her cheek, slowly rising to cover her face.
A moment later her gills flexed open and closed, then open again. Her eyelid fluttered open to stare at the porcelain floor of the tub. I reached down and with my gloves began to softly rub my daughter’s back, to soothe her, upon which her eye began to dart about.
What happened next happened so rapidly that I have a hard time being sure exactly of what occurred. There was a great upsurge of water and I was thrown back and to the floor. I struggled to get up. I saw my daughter, standing in the filled tub, the water from the showerhead pattering on her back and shoulders as she shook off the remains of the rope and bits of broken chair. I scrambled backward toward the exit, but before I could reach it she caught me by the foot and, almost effortlessly, dragged me back to the tub.
She wrapped me in her arms and held me, staring at me through the faceplate of my hazard suit.
“Father,” she managed. Something had changed in her throat and mouth, and the word came out more as a burbling hiss, a wet ghostly spew of air. I tried to respond but she held me too tightly for me to draw breath.
And then, as if I were light as a baby, she hefted me in her arms and rapidly reversed me so I was facing away from her. I felt pressure on the back of my neck, but it was not until I felt that pressure increase and heard the fabric tear that I realized her mouth was there, that she had bitten her way through. I stiffened as I felt her newly sharp teeth tighten against my flesh, but before they broke the skin, the pressure slackened and she drew her face back.
“That is to let you know that I could do it and you could not stop me,” she whispered.
“Please don’t,” I said.
“Why?” she said.
And so, not knowing what else to do, I told her what my plans were, why I hoped to remain human for at least a little longer. She listened, and in the end she smiled, though her smile was so unlike my daughter’s that I found nothing reassuring in it at all. And then she let me go.
I built my daughter a tank, something more comfortable and capacious than the tub, but not as large as might have been ideal for her. But she and I both agreed I should not waste too much time, that I needed to return to my plans.
This all occurred seventeen years after my wife’s death. In the three years since then and now I have cared for my daughter and have grown to understand our relationship in a different way. She is even less human now. Most of what was once important to her no longer is. She has continued to change and now when she speaks it is only with the greatest effort and reluctance. She is eager, I know, for the moment when I will announce that my work is done and will take us both to the ocean, where I will allow her to bite me and say goodbye to my humanity.
I did one other thing before returning to my plans, though I kept this from my daughter. Late one night I went to my wife’s grave and dug her body up. I was hoping I had been wrong about her, that what I had taken for death was the dormancy I had found in my other test subjects, but either she had been too far gone with the cancer or that early solution had been too unstable. She was dead. And she had been so long enough that it was impossible to tell if there had been a moment when she awoke in the ground to recognize she had been buried alive. No, she was dead, and I am nearly certain she was already dead when I first buried her.
So I buried her again and got to work on my plans.
I have spent the last several years purchasing the ionizers meant to distribute sulfur into the atmosphere. Since the method had proven ineffectual in slowing climate change, they were cheaply bought, affordable even for the likes of me. These ionizers now contain not only sulfur but also my solution, and for surety’s sake I have had the balloons supporting the ionizers brought closer to the ground.
Soon they will begin to spray into the troposphere. Particles of the solution will drift slowly to earth, find their way into a few bodies and then, from there, spread everywhere. Everything will change. Everyone will change. Those former humans who manage to make it to the water will thrive. The rest, deprived of water to breathe, will simply grow dormant and shut down. They will litter the ground like the fallen statues of a lost civilization. Then we can decide what to do with them, perhaps based on what we can determine about what they were in their previous lives, back when they were still human. Those who are deserving we will drag to the water, revive, and welcome among us. The others we will torment and, perhaps, destroy.
And what of our retreat to the oceans itself? Considering their current lack of underwater vegetation will there be enough food for us? Or will our bodies go into a suspended state, becoming dormant? Will we float there, unmoving except for the tides, for years, for decades, for centuries, even millennia, until one day we brush against a leafy strand, the beginnings of a renewed undersea forest, and our eyes will open?
Soon we will find out, all of us, whether you want to or not. I told you I had become the devil. And now that the earth is nearly destroyed, it is time for humanity’s reign to end and for the devil’s reign to begin.
“Solution” copyright © 2020 by Brian Evenson
Art copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Alan Love