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Science Fiction Speculative Suspense

The supercollider was called Magus, and it was - undeniably - mankind’s most significant scientific achievement.

Constructed in the asteroid belt 1.2 million kilometers from Mars, Magus remained far from population centers, closest to the resources needed for its function.

In continuous operation for more than four hundred Martian years, the Magus Complex was serviced by tens of thousands of autonomous robots that mined raw materials and fabricated components necessary to maintain the machine.

End-to-end, Magus’ structural truss ran a kilometer long. Housed within that assembly, hundreds of cargo containers were docked side-by-side and interconnected by tens of kilometers of cabling. Fifty containers were uranium-fueled nuclear reactors, six were part of its computer core, and the rest were batteries.

At the heart of Magus was a twenty-two-meter diameter icosahedron composed of twenty triangular electron magnets, surrounded by an array of 2,048 lasers.

Much of the machine’s function was to compute the complex coordinates for time travel.

Generating a future space-time coordinate (STC) wasn’t possible. A Schrodinger’s Cat problem, the desired STC only existed upon observation and was inherently disassociated from the rest of the unobserved universe, thus unreliable. Anything transmitted to the future was obliterated.

However, factoring cosmic entropy alongside the movement of known objects of a specific region of space and knowing their relative mass at scale - ranging from dust particles to satellites, asteroids, moons, planets, solar systems, dark matter, galaxies, and galaxy clusters - Magus could accurately produce an STC to a past location; for instance, it could calculate a previous STC orbiting the planet Earth in just seventeen minutes.

After arriving at an STC, Magus was designed to create a micro-singularity slightly larger than a golf ball - reflecting the totality of information that could be safely transmitted through it - without losing containment, an engineering failure that would result in a 50-kilometer-wide black hole.

And drifting inside the icosahedron, waiting for Magus to finish its computation cycle and held fast by its magnetic field, was an eight-centimeter-long, gold-plated scarab beetle.


* * *


Mars. 3356.


“Approaching STC lock, thirty seconds,” Jaeme reported. She was a senior Magus Complex Engineer and served as a mission specialist.

Kray, mission commander, located hundreds of kilometers away in the State Biodome, tapped his subdermal com in his temple to acknowledge Jaeme verbally. “Thirty seconds.”

Kray nodded affirmatively to Prime Minister Hadiza, who, standing steadfast beside him, consumed a deluge of graphical and statistical information coalescing purely in her mind.

Kray and Jaeme alone were tasked with running Magus’ last mission, what would be its final service, the culmination of a four-hundred-year, multi-generational endeavor.

Under a transparent dome that shielded her people from harmful radiation and contained a life-sustaining atmosphere, Hadiza gazed across the red-soiled planitia. Dressed in a flowing gown of a nanotech fabric that rotated through a pallet of softly-colored hues, she witnessed a hazy, blood-orange Martian sunset for the last time. 

All the while, across all of Mars’ biodomes, three hundred thousand watched Hadiza. They saw her proud and determined face via their own neuro-links, all staring breathlessly, blankly into nothingness before them.

Terrified, most of Mars’ citizens clung dearly to each other. Some had tears in their eyes; some had taken vast quantities of drugs to numb their senses; some had already snuffed out their own lives through orderly, sanctioned methods. And others opted for a more peaceful end, sitting among the green grasses of a park or wandering wheat fields with friends. Still, some took to lay alone on cold, steel floors, their eyes closed and their links off, waiting for an uncertain end.

None were humans of Earth. Rather, they collectively referred to themselves as Martians. All forms of obesity, physical deformity, and disease were genetically edited from their biological design. Compared to the humans of Earth, they were spindly and thin; most exceeded eight feet in height. Their limbs, torso, and necks were elongated, and their muscular structure was redesigned to become more slight and fit, perfected to the reduced gravity of Mars. Accommodating Mars’ gravity and dimness, their eyes were slit-shaped like those of a Terran cat, reengineered to absorb more light.

Jaeme’s voice echoed across their collective links. “Fifteen seconds. The cornerstone is queued.”

Kray, stone-faced and dressed in formal uniform, glared at Minister Hadiza, who - tight-lipped - firmly, resolutely, nodded.

“PM concurs,” Kray said, pressing his temple. “Start countdown at ten seconds.”

“Copy,” Jaeme confirmed, before saying, “Ten-”

In biodomes all across Mars, Martians started weeping. They held each other close and confessed their love.

“Nine-”

Some parents picked up their children, their eyes matted with tears, smiled, and whispered lies into their ears.

“Eight-”

A cold sweat raced down Hadiza’s body, and she felt dizzy, bracing herself against the dome's curvature. At first, she stared at her feet, then fixed her sight on the sunset at the edge of the horizon.

“Seven-”

Revolutionaries in Cassini Biodome hurled Molotov cocktails at peacekeepers, setting officers on fire.

“Six,” Jaeme said, adding, “Magus is primed.”

“Copy,” Kray replied, clenching his jaw.

“Five-”

In the Persbo Biodome, a colony of a hundred red-clad monks prayed for the salvation of all mankind.

“Four-”

In the State Biodome found in the Elysium Planitia, all members of the government apparatus watched on, their expressions emotionless and flat as the countdown continued.

“Three-”

A chaotic mob rushed officers stationed in the Babakin Biodome transit bay, demanding a way out and a ship to take them from Mars.

“Two-”

Watching the space above her head, tears streaming down her cheeks, a Catholic priest gave a Sign of the Cross, kissed her Rosary, and prayed.

“One-”

Delirious, a nude man exited a hatch from Heimdal Biodome to the Martian surface. As he screamed at God, his blood flash-froze, air crystalized in his lungs, and capillaries all over his body burst. He died instantly.

“Event Horizon Confirmed.”

Far away, on Magus, half of its lasers fired into a beamline - magnetic tunnels used to channel quickly-moving sub-atomic particles racing headlong into the icosahedron - while the other half of the array countered. Both volleys slammed highly-accelerated particles into the golden scarab beetle at a single precise nanosecond. Concurrently, when the singularity formed to envelop it, the magnets of the icosahedron compressed to create a magnetic bottle, trapping the event. The process worked as expected, forcing the singularity closed and leaving nothing but empty space at Magus’ core. It was all over in seven milliseconds.

And one thousand, three hundred years earlier, the golden cornerstone appeared in a 48.2-kilometer orbit around the planet Earth.

“Receiving entangled telemetry,” Jaeme advised, moving her hand through spaces before her to interact with symbolic data references perceived in her mind.

Until that moment, her computer systems were unaware of a device with that specific signature orbiting Earth.

However, when observed, Jaeme’s systems acknowledged it’d been there all along. Records of its existence predated her own birth.

“Cornerstone deployment successful,” Jaeme acknowledged, and she sat forward in her chair, tapped off her coms, and began to sob. Her hand trembling, Jaeme brought a blue pill from a glass table to her mouth, tilted her head back, and swallowed.


* * *


Earth. 3356.


The 1,300-year-old scarab beetle cornerstone orbited high above the planet Earth, and, in the vacuum of space, it was still as smooth, golden, and pristine as the moment it arrived.

As its own computer was quantum-entangled with its Martian counterpart, they operated as one, regardless of the time or distance that separated them.

Below, the planet’s oceans were yellowish green, and its land was scorched, barren, and blackened.

There were no glaciers or ice caps at its poles; none of its mountains retained any snow at all; its once-great rivers were poisoned and toxic; what remained of its cities were long since ruined. Earth’s surface vegetation had been corroded - burned away - while chain lightning crawled across gray, churning clouds roiling in its upper atmosphere.

The cornerstone’s sensors registered Earth’s surface temperature near 42c; cyclones and hurricanes raged with 386kph winds; it rained sheets of scaring sulfuric acid; its atmosphere was 97% carbon dioxide and 2% methane.

More a sister to Venus, most of Earth’s life had been eradicated, but more than five hundred million Terrans lived below its surface in warring, nomadic tribes, surviving on manufactured oxygen and nitrogen captured in air-tight caves. Lost, they were primitives, entirely unaware of Mars or Martians, or any satellites like the cornerstone circling their planet.


* * *


Mars. 3356.


All of Mars watched on.

Receiving Jaeme’s confirmation, Kray was the first to speak. “Cornerstone’s deployed.”

Her hand still resting against the surface of the dome to support her weight, Prime Minister Hadiza placed a shaking hand on her chest. She forced herself to swallow before speaking. “It is in position? We are receiving data, Commander?”

“Yes, madam,” Kray replied, then stepped forward, eager to complete his task. “At your-”

Recollecting herself, Hadiza proudly raised her gaze to meet his, for she needed only to glance at Kray to silence him.

“People … of Mars,” she began, turning her head from him. Hadiza’s voice was unflinching and steady; her attitude regal and above reproach. “More than a thousand years ago, we left Earth for a new home.”

To those who wished to see her, Hadiza appeared as a translucent image projected onto the back of their retinas. Most watched on, stunned, wondering what the Prime Minister might say in their final moments, while some cried, wailed, and panicked.

“We escaped death, an interplanetary diaspora surviving for hundreds of years on Earth’s moon, in the asteroid belt, and finally, here, on Mars.”

Gazing at her open palms, Hadiza continued. “Space was unkind. It ravaged our bodies, and in turn, we modified ourselves so we might adapt. We evolved so we might live. We sacrificed so we might survive.”

She recalled a high-resolution image of a sickly green and gray Earth and presented it to everyone’s consciousness. “Forced to trade one inhospitable waste for another, we fled, leaving our Earthbound brothers and sisters behind.” 

The image evaporated to be replaced by Prime Minister Hadiza gazing into the setting sun along the Martian horizon.

“And it was here we rested. We found sanctuary in Mars’ craters, and we bore our fruit. We reconstructed our civilization, economy, and commerce, excelling in science and furthering our technology. Undaunted, Martians thrived.”

Capable of sharing their emotional states with others, tens of thousands of Martians voluntarily opened their neuro-links to transmit their collective feelings. Individuals were inundated with crushing waves of fright, horror, and terror, yet tempered by the soothing warmth of empathy, compassion, and love.

“Although divorced from Earth, we were unforgetting,” Hadiza recounted. “We always remembered our Mother, as She was, and gratefully recalled our time cradled - sheltered - in Her arms. Alive, on Mars, we shared our stories, music, and art.”

In space, ships orbiting Mars drifted derelict and aimless, their pilots knowing they had nowhere to escape.

“Alive, we sang our Mother’s songs, and read aloud the poems of our forefathers.”

Within the tunnels, below the surface, in the absolute darkness, workers huddled in their pressurized suits and placed comforting hands on their glassy, reflective helmets, touching what they could touch. 

“Alive, we taught them all to our children, passing our treasured memories of Earth to each successive generation.”

Hadzia swallowed and held back her tears.

“Let it never be forgotten,” Hadiza breathed, “we … lived.”

Kray lowered his head to read intelligence feeds.

Pausing, she looked longingly into the hearts of her people, and all who saw her felt Hadiza’s pride - her welling courage - mixed with intense sorrow.

“But what we abandoned,” she said, “what we believed could never be reclaimed, might be ours once again. Humanity isn’t simply doomed to retreat. Humanity is destined to return.”

Kray pressed his temple and whispered, “Stand by.”

“Friends, Countrymen, Martians,” Prime Minister Hadiza roared, her emotion racing like a fierce wind across the minds of all.

Hadiza lifted her arms above her head, and shouted, “What we do now calls upon powers formerly reserved for the might of gods. Today, we square ourselves before the resentful eyes of history to forgive the past, and to gift life to all of mankind!”

Hadiza rested her eyes for the last time, exhaled in release, and nodded.

Kray commanded, “Execute.”

Then, instantly, everyone and everything - the Martians, their machines, their habitats, poems, stories, and songs - ceased to exist.


* * *


Earth. 2056.


The cornerstone received its first and final command.

Quantum entangled, the notion of time was irrelevant. All instances of the device found in all STC’s throughout time received and processed the same command.

In response, the cornerstone, in orbit around the Earth in 2056 - having arrived only moments ago - adjusted its attitude and pitch to angle its flank to the sun and retract its protective golden shell. Its wings opened and blossomed into a shiny, mechanical, three-petaled mirror.

Afterward, it opened a radio communications channel with other devices in Earth’s orbit.

During its four centuries of operation, Magus had continuously teleported tens of millions of devices to Earth’s past, and, like the cornerstone device itself, they had only winked into existence seconds ago.

Receiving a software update from the cornerstone’s command carrier, they patched their systems, and they, too, followed command protocol to open their mirrored wings.

And like a blooming garden bending to greet the sun, millions of brilliant white flares of sunlight raced from one side of the planet to the other.

When fully deployed, the Earth was shielded by an intelligent, self-regulating, interactive mesh of mirrors.

Every moment of every day, the beetles reoriented themselves to ward off the greatest concentration of light, constantly sparing the planet from excess radiation. 

On the Earth’s surface, unaided humans couldn’t visually see the minute mirrors so far off in space - the black side of the beetles constantly faced the Earth - and their lives, for the most part, proceeded as normal.

Meanwhile, nation-states secretly investigated the mesh to spare their populations from distress and panic.

It would take four decades for scientists to reveal their findings, concluding the mirror deflected more than 1.5 percent of the sun’s total light back into space - more than enough energy to permanently counteract the effects of climate change. And in speaking to their origin, scientists worldwide unequivocally agreed they were man-made but of a technology that far surpassed their own, and they speculated the beetles were possibly made by humans from a parallel universe.

Mankind, humbled, their understanding of the universe so stretched to finally comprehend the scope of their negligence, grew wiser and made better policy, vowing to each other to become better stewards of the planet.

As a result, the melting of the ice caps slowed; cooler temperatures kept deposits of methane frozen at the bottom of the ocean; less reflected light from the oceans became trapped in the atmosphere; plant and animal life were given a chance to adapt; and planetary greenhouse effects diminished.

The Earth was saved.


* * *


Mars. 2112.


Sixty years later, a NASA astronaut serving a tour on Mars studied the regolith’s mineral content, chemical composition, and toxicity.

She identified traces of silicon, calcium, and aluminum found in the computer processing elements of the scarab beetles orbiting Earth matched her Martian samples.

It is with absolute certainty, she wrote, confirming her findings in a career-defining report, that the collective future of all mankind was sourced from, and born in, the sands of Mars. She is, at once, both our savior and imminent frontier. May we forever tread lightly, for we walk upon the bones of angels.


April 30, 2023 13:46

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29 comments

RJ Holmquist
02:46 May 02, 2023

Some great detailed science fiction! Powerful moment when the scarabs are deployed. "We walk upon the bones of angels" What a great line! It should be a book title.

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Russell Mickler
02:51 May 02, 2023

Hi RJ! Well, I originally thought I'd take that as a title, but as I mentioned in an earlier comment, I really really wanted an "of Mars" title ... hehehe as a tribute to early 20th-century scifi. Thank you! Really glad you liked it ... R

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Rebecca Miles
14:23 May 04, 2023

Where angels fear to tread is such an amazing book title; I can quite see why you'd want to riff on it with "We walk upon the bones of angels". I went back to the exposition a couple of times; I'm impressed how you gave us the full sci-fi works, all that mind boggling jargon and space terminology and focused it all on the scarab. Some interesting ethical questions in here too, very nice!

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Russell Mickler
21:14 May 04, 2023

Hey there, Rebecca! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment ... :) It was fun to write - I admit I've been itching to do a sci-fi story for a while now. All the best :) R

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David Sweet
16:04 May 06, 2023

I agree!

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Lily Finch
12:56 May 01, 2023

Russell, such a story on a wipe out of a sort. I enjoyed the writing and the descriptive tale. You weave a great story into the fabric of sci-fi material so well. Thanks for the story. LF6.

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Russell Mickler
14:03 May 01, 2023

Hey there, Lily! The prompt called for a cost ... how far would humanity go to save itself? Big cost there. Further, I think it opens the door to another question: was Earth worth it? Martians were becoming a new species, a whole new civilization, and were they _better_ than humans? Should they have sacrificed themselves for the folly of the past? I'm a big sci-fi fan so I wanted to give it an epic title from the olden days - like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom (John Carter of Mars) series ... :) "The Gods of Mars", "The Warlords of Mars",...

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Lily Finch
14:34 May 01, 2023

Yes. Russell you raise some valid concerns that speak to civilizations expanding and morphing into an evolutionized version of earthlings that are superior? It seems logical since evolution lends itself toward this type of thinking according to Darwin's old theory. However, we are long past that in this story but sacrifices are always those that are costly for the greater good. Whether it be in Christianity or in Judaism or any other religion so why not in humanity from a non-religiosity background? It seems to me that most people would un...

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Mary Bendickson
22:40 Apr 30, 2023

You might not often write sci-fi but it lives in your imagination. And what an imagination! Thank you for giving us a glimpse.

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Russell Mickler
00:07 May 01, 2023

Hey there, Mary - Thank you :) And thanks for reading and commenting. Yeah, I love space and sci-fi, it's just that it demands a great deal more proof than writing fantasy, where I can make up everything about the world and don't need to double-check anything. I and ChatGPT spent a good 3 hours together clarifying the facts in this piece and re-writing its key sections. :) Thanks again for reading :) R

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Martin Ross
20:23 May 06, 2023

Damn, Russell — you are a master of hard sci-fi as well as fantasy! Without being a physicist or climatologist, everything had a real Andy Weir/Arthur Clarke legitimacy to it, with a Robert Sawyer panspermic/pantemporal mind-messer and a Ray Bradbury feel of wonder and humanity! Everything great about a time-and-space epic. The biotech adaptation of the “martians” alone was a blast! And after that great detective story a few weeks back — you are a multi-genre jedi!

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Russell Mickler
16:04 May 07, 2023

Hi Martin! Giggle - love those authors - sci fi was my first love in middle school, Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoon stuff, and Mars … it left an indelible impression. A Stranger in a Strange Land, and Heinlein’s sweeping multigenerational epics seized me as a teenager; Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, gave me an appreciation for the problem of time; all of the sci-fi movies, Star Wars, Star Trek, the video games … lately, discovering Octavia Butler … I eat and breathe sci-fi …. :) I’m a junkie :) I’m so glad you loved it, man. I don’t think i...

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Martin Ross
16:41 May 07, 2023

I love selected sci-fi authors — older Asimov, Bradbury on Mars, Sturgeon and Heinlein, and certainly Robert Sawyer, who usually has some mystery element buried in a mind-blowing quantum/parallel reality/extraterrestrial plot. And Douglas Adams. And I think you deserve some pretty high praise, especially for, like Sawyer, using boggling sci-fi to address very pressing current issues.

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A.Dot Ram
18:58 May 06, 2023

This was fantastic. I didn't completely follow the science of it, but you told it with such authority that I trusted it. I enjoyed the world that you imagined in such detail. You managed to pack a big emotional punch into a very technical story, especially in all the flashes you showed in the countdown. It really captured the cost. Yes, really makes me wonder if it was worth it.

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Russell Mickler
19:01 May 06, 2023

Hi A.Dot! Hey, glad you liked it and that it provoked some great questions :) thank you for taking the time to read and write a comment … All the best :) R

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David Sweet
16:03 May 06, 2023

Absolutely loved this story! I can't help but think that it could serve as a synopsis for a much larger narrative (not sure if you have any intentions of doing so). I really enjoyed your pacing and your conclusion! I know in a longer narrative format, you would have the latitude to explore the characters much more in-depth and the complexities of your moral dilemmas. I find it interesting that you included Catholism so far in the future. So many avenues for many types of debates about whether or not they are doing the right thing. Please let...

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Russell Mickler
16:19 May 06, 2023

Hi David! Wow, I don't think I could have asked for a better review, thank you! Catholicism (ahem, for better or worse) has endured :) and it adds a splash of "Jesuit Sisterhood " if you're a Frank Herbert fan. I figured Catholicism, pressed to the brink of annihilation, would actually open their priestly ranks to women by that time. :) >> So many avenues for many types of debates about whether or not they are doing the right thing. Oh, totally agree. I think I'd even argue to leave man "behind", so to speak, start fresh - why spoil wha...

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David Sweet
16:32 May 06, 2023

No problem. Loved it. And, yes, I have been a Frank Herbert (Dune) fan since mid 1980s. I do hope you will consider fleshing this out to a longer narrative. It has such great possibilities. And, if you do, I would really like a heads up to read it. I agree with many of the other comments you received that the title is great, it is what hooked me first. Like others in your comments, I thought the line "We walk upon the bones of angels" to be superb.

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Russell Mickler
16:33 May 06, 2023

Thank you, sir :) R

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Russell Mickler
00:04 May 01, 2023

Hi! This story is based on an environmental engineering concept known as a space mirror. It's nothing new and has been around conceptually for about a hundred years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_mirror_(climate_engineering) Here's my landing page for this story: https://www.black-anvil-books.com/born-in-the-sands-of-mars Thanks for reading! R

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Irene Duchess
14:33 Apr 30, 2023

A price for time travel… I certainly wasn’t expecting a Martian story where in the end they all ceased to exist. High price. Wonderfully written. One quick thing—I’m not sure how familiar you are with Catholicism, but at one point you wrote “a Catholic priest kissed her Rosary, and prayed”, but Catholic priests are only males. I loved that last bit with the NASA astronaut discovering that the Martian samples matched the scarab beetles’ elements. :)

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Russell Mickler
15:17 Apr 30, 2023

Hi Liliah - hey thank you! Glad you liked it - it was keeping me up so I sort of spent the evening / morning writing it … it’s fuzzy and still needs work, but the female priest is intentional :) the Martians were a bit more enlightened :) Thank you so much for commenting - I don’t often write sci-fi these days :) R

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Roger Scypion
10:25 Dec 10, 2023

Great sci-fi writing, captivating throughout. Could be a fantastic novel easily!

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Russell Mickler
14:56 Dec 11, 2023

Hi Roger! Thank you so much - I'm glad you liked it, and I appreciate your taking the time to write a comment :) R

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Joseph Morris
13:27 May 12, 2023

Well done. An SF short story that harks back to the golden age in the fifties. Then it was nuclear war. Now it’s climate change. My vote for best story so far.Again, we’ll done.

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Theresa Amante
16:41 May 11, 2023

Hi Russell, As an environmental engineer, I absolutely LOVED this story. WOWZERS. Beautiful prose, sound science, great pacing, and the arch of the story....I mean I actually had tears brew (granted I was listening to "The Experience by Ludovico" while reading) :). I hope to read more from you, and learn to write like you someday. Thanks for the lovely read.

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Russell Mickler
17:21 May 11, 2023

Hi Theresa! HOLY COW! Grin - I don't think anyone could possibly say anything better about my work - thank you so much, Theresa, I totally appreciate it! That's so kind of you to say ... And how very interesting - one of my beta readers on this story got kinda verklempt on me, too, so you're in good company :) so glad it struck a chord! Grin - hopefully, it's not the kind of solution we have to rely upon in the real world to see progress on policy ... but we can hope for better. All the best :) R

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William Richards
12:34 May 07, 2023

This was great, well done. The detailed explanation of the science was good. And the scope of the story and the stakes. I'd be happy to lose to this one!

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Russell Mickler
16:07 May 07, 2023

Hey William! I’m so glad you liked it, thank you! :) thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment :) R

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