RUST

by Frank McAlpin

Scientist: better not let any develop on your equipment

   By accident I happened upon a description which I believe one day will help to unravel a mystery which has puzzled scientists for some time.

     I received a phone call from the wife of a former colleague. We had been good friends during our college years. In fact it was his wife who introduced me to the woman who has been my wife now for over forty-seven years. She called me to say that her husband had died suddenly of heart failure and would I please go through his academic papers for her. She’d spent weeks of rummaging through their household financial papers and needed a break from the daily reminders.

     I agreed that the trip would be good for me and my wife and that our getting together for a few days would do some good for all of us. I was also excited at the chance to go over my friend’s papers. He was a careful observer and for some years we’d carried on a running conversation of a speculative nature about things past and present on the planet and had discussed the nature of many phenomena common to both of our fields of study.

     It had been years since we last spoke and I was curious to see what he’d been up to. His wife was pleased that we agreed to go. The last thing she wanted was that some important observation or theory get into the hands of a less-than-first-rate scientist. It wasn’t so much that she wanted her husband to get proper recognition, she said, but that he was particular about what he said and would not put up with misinterpretation. After coffee I excused myself to go up to his second floor study to arrange the work for the next few days. The two women admitted that they too could no longer put up with my fidgeting with my empty coffee cup.

     I found his work to be rather neatly organized, as if it were waiting for someone to read it. There were piles of papers around the room in varying states of neglect. It seemed to me when I entered the room that the newer work had the least dust on its piles so I began with the smallest batch of papers on the center of the largest desk. A neatly-typed but unfinished paper was a description of a creature wandering through car fields. Hundreds of ancient and rusted cars, arranged in awkward rows, rested silently on a gray asphalt lot. A beast was drawn there by the smell of the asphalt.

     The paper went on to say that thousands of years before, there was a parking lot where the car field is today. Cars only stayed there for a short time while their owners searched for merchandise to purchase. The civilizations of that ancient time had built thousands of these lots near those which were commercial market-places. They also served as the hub of life for the surrounding community as the watering place had served earlier societies thousands of years before. People met at the centers to eat, relationships started there, young people congregated there for recreation, and people spent much of their creative energy hunting for things to wear and put in their homes. The paper described how the lots outside of these centers were sought out by creatures which that civilization could never have imagined…creatures which were adapted for hunting of a different sort: hunting for the tarmac tuber which grows beneath the asphalt.

     Under precise conditions of temperature and climate, nourished by a combination of oils, antifreeze, salts, minerals, and melting agents, certain tubers had evolved beneath the various types of tarmac. The tubers which had adapted to the car fields, areas which had been designated for the storage of cars before the destruction of the last civilization, were of special character. Although the “meat” of the tarmac tuber was stringy, it could be gotten down into a pasta which, properly prepared, could be kept for years and served in a variety of ways.

     The evolution of the subterranean plant life had taken hundreds of centuries. Millions of mutations of countless microbes and other combinations of plant life had taken place before the most efficient form had developed. Animal life, on the surface above, was not as successful so quickly. There were few living things which survived the great blasts which the latest inhabitants of the planet inflicted on one another. Then there were the cold periods, some of which lasted for nearly as long as the ice ages of the previous millennia.

     The creatures which were most successful after the last cold age had developed special ways to gather and digest the tubers which grew beneath the asphalt. Their hands were shaped like elongated scoops of excavating equipment of ancient times. They spent hours and hours sharpening their appendages on a plot of asphalt which they claimed as their own. Vicious skirmishes often broke out among them and the largest survived to fight again. Size and ability to use their scoop-like claws determined the history of their evolution. Food-gathering ability and intelligence had little to do with their remarkable success.

     Their reign as the largest beast of the animal kingdom on the planet is estimated to have lasted four and a half million years. They were prolific creatures as well, for because there were few predators which could challenge them and even fewer among the minor animal life which could penetrate their shells, which consisted of a material which was nearly identical in composition to another previous material which was called “plastic”.

     A car field was a dangerous place and to wander through one must have taken great courage. The beast which slowly crawled on ten legs through this car field had less fear than most. His tremendous size alone gave him a right to be there or indeed anywhere. It spoke in his demeanor and his gait. He shifted his heavily-armored body from side to side as he moved along lazily. His progress was marked by his loud footfalls which cracked the thickest asphalt except that which in ancient times covered highways and which for some unknown reason had a layer of concrete beneath. His footprints in the asphalt were almost a foot deep as if made in warm weather.

     The car fields were prime areas for nesting. The asphalt beneath the cars hid the best places for digging and burying a clutch of five or six bright blue eggs. Directly beneath and nearby was the largest and tastiest of all the plant life, easily harvested by the giant crostaca.  Several scoops of asphalt and earth were usually enough to uncover the root system. The preparation of the plant, however, was not done by the clawed monster. The animal had a symbiotic relationship with another creature which cared for the tubers and worked their meaty centers into the pasta which made up most of their meals. The pasta had various flavors when prepared during different seasons of the year and it was eaten in huge quantities, especially by the females of  reproductive age, who were sixty percent larger than their male partners. So entire colonies of the slave creatures worked near the car fields in compounds which served as factories made from the abandoned vehicles. When a car field was first discovered by one of the big clawed creatures, the first preparation it made was to tear apart the thin steel bodies of the rusted cars and fashion an area for the preparation for the food-preparing slave. If this was not done correctly, the colony could not produce enough of the precious food to sustain life in their colony nor enough for the monster and his mate. The female big-claws were fastidious about mate selection and insisted that the slave colony be the right size and that every individual be properly cared for.

     The food-producing slave of the giant crostaca was a creature that had evolved only in the areas where the car fields were found, and it could only eat the processed meat of the tubers, which were nourished by the seepages of various chemicals through the petroleum-based asphalt. They did not themselves have the ability to penetrate the asphalt and so depended on their host creatures for the excavation of their preferred food. A colony of food-making slaves was an important find in the life of a giant crostaca and ensured a long and happy existence. The members of the colony counted on the success of their masters in finding and digging up the huge tarmac tubers. A quarrel over the mastery of a colony always ended in death.

     The genetic trail of the ancient predecessor of the slave creatures was solved early. The creature seemed to be at the heart of every contribution to its society, especially the last destruction. It was one of the first primates on the planet and called “man” by the ancients and was, perhaps, our earliest relative.

     The end of the giant crostaca period, however, has always been the biggest mystery of all natural phenomena. All that is known now is that their disappearance happened about nine million years ago. There are hundreds of theories about their sudden departure and the relatively new science of ancient archaeology seems to be making slow progress in understanding the period.

     Here the paper stopped. I was expecting the big discovery to be right where the paper left off. That is the usual formula. It fully described the mystery and explained why up until now no one has discovered the key. It was exactly the way my friend would have carefully introduced a scientific bombshell. But there was none.

     Sadly I decided to organize the rest of his papers. I tempered my disappointment with the rationalization that after all it was just for that reason I had made such a long trip. For the next two days I read about nearly every topic which the old scientist studied. Most of the areas had long been investigated. There were few discoveries and nothing of any importance other than small historical details. He had done research on the plastic eggs of the crostaca and he’d written a long paper on their social behavior, although much of this was sheer speculation. But there were many papers, in all of the piles, with chemical references.

     What he seemed to be working toward was the chemical makeup of the tarmac tuber. There were lists and lists of chemical compounds relating to the plant. I found one entire pile of papers devoted to this investigation. He seemed to be searching for a missing element, because there were blank spaces on every page, as if some important ingredient were missing. I separated all of the papers which dealt with chemical compounds. Then, still stymied, I separated them into organic and inorganic, but the two piles still held no clues for me.

     On the last day I decided to read completely through one of the two piles. On a hunch I picked the inorganic pile as I thought that if he’d made a big discovery that an organic answer would have been too obvious. I read quickly. It was our last day and we were due to be at the airport after dinner. Eye-weary and nearly completing the pile, I came across a paper titled “Ferrous Oxide.” Now it has been millennia since it was a common element on the planet, but during the time of the ancients, they used iron compounds for nearly everything, including the structural framework for their buildings. It would have been logical, my friend argued, to find it in the chemical makeup of the tarmac tuber, but after examining thousands of extant examples from museums all over the world, not one trace was found. If the car fields were common to every crostaca colony, it would be reasonable to extract trace elements of iron oxide in any examples of the plant. To find none, he argued, meant something, and probably that the tuber had no resistance to it and therefore it surely contributed to its demise.

     After all these years, my friend discovered that what caused the extinction of the giant crostaca was not what was there, but what was missing.

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