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The Thinking Molecules of Titan: Ending by Diane Friedman

Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story Roger was working on when he passed away. This ending is one of many we received. To read Roger's beginning to the story, from the end of which each entry picks up the thread, go here. Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi. This is one of four endings we're posting this week. Vote on this week's endings here.

Diane Friedman writes:

"Or maybe a good Salieri?" said Mason.

Elliott had had enough of the fairy tale for one evening. Science speculation was just annoying to him. He said, "Hey, I got to go. See you tomorrow," and left his money for his beer on the table. Just as well, thought Mason. Elliott was a rock solid thinker, but actually more like a rock head. Elliott had never heard the phrase "just suppose" when he was growing up.

Regan was quiet now. They all knew that look—when she was having a fast conversation in her head, popping from one stone to the next, and all of a sudden, an idea coming out that let everyone know she was far down stream from when they had last seen her.

"None of this really matters…" she said slowly, as she twisted the little paper sleeve from a soda straw into a thin little string.

Mason said "What? Are you kidding me…?"

Regan put the paper string inside the straw, pinched the end of her straw and slid it inside the other end to make a boxy circle.

"It doesn't matter what exactly is happening on Titan or if the molecules can think or compose music or whatever. But Mason, Alex, Claire, don't you get it?" Now she was getting a little pink and close to turning over her water glass.

Regan started playing with her straw again. "If the molecules can do it on Titan, they can do it here. They could be doing it right now. They are proabably already doing it here—in the deep clefts of the ocean. Nobody has an antenna to listen to signals from there--who would think to listen? And if they heard something and went to look, what would they find? Just globby stuff—or maybe if it is molecules, it could be a single layer that looks like a slime, if you can even see it."

Regan's eyes got wide. She was remembering a story from school from along time ago. Yes—Mr. Millheim's English class—Arrowsmith—

The girl goes to her boyfriend's lab and picks up a cigarette and smokes it. But too bad, the cigarette had been laying on a countertop that had plague germs and she gave herself a good enough dose to kill herself and she never knew it. What happens if someone ingests this? Or if it simply replicates unopposed?

"We have to warn people…" Over went the water glass.

"Hold on a minute, " said Mason

"No, I mean it! Just stop and think. Somebody from one of the deep water submersibles brings up a snail or a rock covered with a thin layer of our Salieri stuff. Maybe it's in a lab fish tank or maybe it's dry and out on someone's window sill. Maybe the slime dies if it is exposed to air and light. But what happens if it just goes dormant—until the right combination of circumstances comes along?"

Claire's mind was far, far away too……."Yes—something with darkness, and moisture, and sulfur and heat, maybe some methane, maybe some electricity."

"You are just making things up," said Mason irritably. He wanted to get back to the lab and look at some real data.

Claire looked at him hard. "You have never been in a lab fire have you?"

"Well, no."

She wouldn't stop looking at him. He tried to guess her feelings to get her to stop giving him the eyeball.

Mason tried, "It would be terrible to lose all the data, right? All the notebooks. Lose the freezers and the samples." She wouldn't stop looking at him. "Help me here, Claire," said Mason. " I'm not into biology."

Claire looked over at Regan. "You lose the electricity and the emergency lights come on. Maybe there is an electrical short from one of the centrifuges or cell shakers. But if you don't get out of there, you can get hit with the fire suppressant—and there are a lot of nasty chemicals in that stuff."

Regan was right with her. "What if that did wake up the Salieri stuff? And then the nice lab techs and grad students wipe down all the counter tops the next day, and throw out the chem wipes and the Salieri stuff…"

Alex finished… "goes out in the trash to the land fill, with nice pockets of methane and, oh boy, this gets nice and complicated…"

Regan was on her feet. "We have to warn them."

Mason said, "Calm down." Regan turned on him and looked like she was going to fry his forehead with a death ray.

"Do NOT EVER tell me to calm down. There is nothing to be calm about. You see how this could work out. We have to figure this out and warn somebody…"

Mason took her hand and said "Hey I'm really sorry. It's just that this conversation is moving really fast and I need to think this all through. I'm a step by step guy. A data guy. Besides—you know how they can't find all the moon rocks anymore. How are we going to find who has all the ocean samples? Can we just be quiet for one minute? I need to think. Please…"

They got up in silence, wiped up the table from where the water glass spilled, left a tip in a dry spot and waited outside while Alex paid. Out on the sidewalk, Regan, Clare and Mason were standing together but each looking off in different directions—with their minds on rocky Titan, or in a bubbling boiling sulphur vent in the pitch-black crushing pressure of the ocean bottom or…at a long old wooden table in a faculty meeting trying to explain a possible biological danger to planet geologists, or oceanographers. Mason didn't even know the names for the science specialties—he just knew that if this was a real danger, what marine biologist would listen to an explanation from a space astroradiographer? The first scientific term that he misused, he would be toast—that is, if he was sure that Regan and Claire were right.

Alex came out. "We have a problem."

"Only one?" said Mason.

"Well, if this is right, ocean scientists aren't exactly going to be impressed with the maritime expertise of a farm school," said Alex. Mason thought, well, of all of them Alex was the one with the credential of actually being from farm country.

Regan had slowly tuned back in to what Alex was saying and was just getting ready to get fired up again….

Alex said, "Hold on though. I have an idea. My cousin is a grad student at Scripps. Well, actually, he's a lab assistant right now, in an algae lab. But here's the thing. He helped out when they were filming the submersible scenes for Titanic. He was a stand-around-in-the-background lab guy because he has good facial hair. So maybe he has a friend with the submersible people."

Regan, Claire and Mason looked blank.

"No really. It's not so stupid. It's a start in the right direction—plus he liked coming out to our farm outside of Decatur for the whole summer when we were kids so he knows that fly-over country is not automatically stupid. Besides, he likes slime molds. Once you get him started, he never shuts up about them. He'll like the Salieri idea," Alex smiled at Regan.

So they hiked it back to the lab—and then on to La Jolla, to figure out who to persuade about the non self-aware thinking molecules of Titan. Would they have to take some slime and bring it to life to prove their point? Would a non-evolutionist professor intervene and attempt to foil the demonstration? Would a Unitarian bring a meeting of the minds and a peaceful step forward in new knowledge? Would they send all the ocean vent samples out into space or put them back into the vent to dispose of them, or rather to protect them? Would someone slip one little snail into a pocket just to keep it for later?

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