by Rob Balder
A hundred and nine thousand years passed relatively quickly for Hector the H2O. That’s the mercy of being solid; you are in a low-energy state so you sleep most of the time.
He had been bouncing and singing in the troposphere, enjoying all of the interesting molecules he was meeting on a millisecond basis. But as he slid into a low-pressure system over what would become Newfoundland, he started to slow down. Molecules he met began to hang around for socially uncomfortable spans of time. Eventually he met Brenda, who wouldn’t go away no matter how often he mentioned how late it was getting. Phil and Delilah soon followed, bringing Habib, Jermaine and Cassie with them. Hector couldn’t get rid of any of them.
But he was getting too tired to care. The snowflake they were forming coalesced and fell onto the white wastes of Greenland. A week later, a second snowstorm covered them. Over the millennia, the weight of subsequent snowfalls would squeeze them into the densest ice pack on Earth. Hector took the first of many long naps.
Spend a thousand-odd centuries with any six other people and you are going to get tired of their stories, no matter how much you sleep. Brenda had one about the time she came out in a stream of urine from a lioness on the Serengeti, was assimilated into a growing strand of grass, got eaten by a wildebeest and absorbed into a fat cell, then the wildebeest was hunted down and eaten…and she found herself back in the exact same lioness. The times Hector had heard this gripping story numbered in the seven figures.
Phil had one about being inside an overripe berry, one of a patch that was eaten by some passing macaques. The macaques were so intoxicated by the berries that the whole tribe followed their leader off a sixty-foot cliff and into the Mekong River. After a thousand centuries, he still couldn’t quite get through this story without cracking up.
Delilah had unfortunately spent the better part of four billion years trapped in porous seabed rock, until gradual upthrusting finally released her in a cloud of steam from an Andean volcano. She was socially hopeless. Her stories mostly involved the subtle societal interactions among colonies of anaerobic bacteria. Normally silent, when she got to the end of a story she would bust out in snorts and giggles, while the six of them looked at each other and rolled their hydrogens.
Butch was snotty, Jermaine was aloof, and Habib was so eager to agree with everyone that everybody wanted to choke him. Cassie… Well, Cassie was actually a D2O; her hydrogens were deuterium isotopes. But God forbid you’d use the term “heavy water” around her. She would launch into a diatribe about stereotyping people based solely on their physical appearance. One of her monologues could go on for a week, and usually ended with her bawling inconsolably, while the six of them tried vainly to reassure her that she really “didn’t look all that heavy.”
Then the day came when Hector awoke to the crash of a drill bit. A phalanx of diamond molecules, rude and cliquish as always, plowed through their little social circle without so much as an excuse-me. Phil, Brenda, Delilah, Habib, Jermaine, and Cassie were gone. Hector knew he would probably never see them again. As he tumbled along a groove in the stainless-steel coring bit, he did a happy, happy dance.
Hector emerged from the tube into light, the first he had seen since his imprisonment. It excited him. A parka-clad researcher lopped off a section of core sample with a fine-toothed diamond handsaw and laid the piece beside three others in an insulated carrying case. Hector was right on the surface of the core sample, and struggled to wiggle free and sublimate into the surrounding air. It was too cold in the tent enclosure, though. The case lid slammed shut, leaving Hector stuck to three strange molecules named Sanjay, Patsy, and Spike.
During the fifteen weeks they spent in storage, Hector kept his new friends endlessly amused. The others had not been separated in the drilling, except to lose somebody named Oliver, whom they couldn’t stand anyway. He regaled them with stories of his time in the seas of the Cambrian Era, explaining the more sordid aspects of trilobite reproductive habits with wicked comic timing.
At least, Hector felt they were amused. After a while he began to suspect that Sanjay was humoring him, and the others were going along.
So it was with relief that when the case was opened, a gust of warm breath provided all the energy Hector needed to escape the uncomfortable social confines of ice.
“Um, bye guys,” he said. He was pretty sure they snickered.
The breath which freed him had been expelled by Dr. Noel Gatlin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the very individual who had ordered the core samples to be taken. The senior climatologist was leaning over and closely examining the cylinders of ice, and on his subsequent intake of breath, Hector was sucked into his sinus cavity and firmly plastered to a wall of mucus.
Hector was in warm, gooey ecstasy. Only a few times in his long life had he enjoyed the sensation of being mucous. It gave him the freedom of being liquid without the hectic bump-and-grind. It was warmer than almost any lake or ocean, but without the spastic pace of being steam. He sighed, and slowly circulated through the glorious layer of slime.
Hector spent the day in Dr. Gatlin’s sinuses, bumping around and chatting with any molecule who’d even say hi to him. Most of the proteins he ran into were too wrapped up in their complex agendas to even notice him. He ran into a couple of enzymes who picked him up and tossed him around like a Frisbee™. After so many centuries of having to keep still, this was actually a lot of fun.
But all good things must end eventually. There are two major exits from the human sinus, and Hector was ejected at 200 MPH out the most obvious one. Dr. Gatlin, allergic to dust mites, had sneezed while standing in line at a neighborhood McDonald’s restaurant.
Released as part of a droplet into the warm, moist indoor air, Hector was a little disappointed but still happy to be free. He exchanged brief goodbyes with the other H2Os as their droplet evaporated a few centimeters before it reached the floor behind the register.
Swept up in the rising air from the floor heater, Hector swirled around behind the counter, was inhaled and immediately exhaled by two different employees, and then was drawn near the shake machine.
In one sudden and unpleasant moment, Hector came in contact with the frigid nozzle and immediately condensed. Suddenly he felt cold and sluggish, and couldn’t think straight. Over the next minute or so, countless other water molecules experienced the same problem and began collecting on the nozzle, slowly forming a drop. It seemed that they were fated to fall the 15 inches to the drainage pan, but at that moment someone ordered a strawberry shake. As the shake was dispensed, Hector’s droplet of condensation fell right into the cup.
The shake was a special treat for Jimmy French, age 3, who had finally demonstrated to his parents his mastery of the flush toilet. McDonald’s is the universal place to celebrate such an accomplishment. Jimmy happily consumed about half of his shake by drinking out of the cup with both hands and the lid off. The other half ended up on the table, the floor, the high chair, Jimmy’s clothes, and Jimmy’s face.
As fate would have it, Hector was in the half of the shake which made it into Jimmy’s gastrointestinal tract. Hector found himself being churned around the little stomach with a thick crowd of other water molecules, plus a large number of sugars, fats and proteins. The enzymes in Jimmy’s stomach borrowed him in a number of different chemical operations. Hector thought it was all very interesting.
Before too long, Hector was ushered by peristalsis past the pylorus and into the small intestine. He made it about four feet before he started feeling uncomfortable with how many other waters were around him. He had an overwhelming urge to move himself somewhere where water was less concentrated. As soon as he had a chance, he shouldered his way through the semipermeable membrane of one of Jimmy’s intestinal villi. Hector was now part of Jimmy’s bloodstream.
If the pace in the GI tract was brisk, in the bloodstream it was absolutely frantic. Hydrostatic pressure first forced him into small veins, then larger ones. He was jostled along until he reached the vena cava, then the right atrium of Jimmy’s heart. He was then drawn into the right ventricle, where he was forcefully pumped out the pulmonary artery and into Jimmy’s lungs.
Before long, he reached an alveolus, a tiny sac where gasses are exchanged. This was an opportunity for Hector to escape back into the surrounding air as Jimmy exhaled. But like most of the water in the bloodstream, Hector stayed put and continued to circulate.
Still, Hector was not fated to remain in Jimmy’s bloodstream for long. Less than two days after he was part of that strawberry shake, Hector’s “fantastic voyage” took him through the convolutions of a nephron in Jimmy’s right kidney. Suddenly, a pair of sodium ions grabbed him like military police and escorted him across a membrane and into a glomerular capsule. Hector asked if they were sure they knew what they were doing.
“We’re positive,” they replied.
From the nephron Hector passed from the collecting duct through the renal papillae and into the renal pelvis, another collection point. Hector had been turned into urine a few times before, and he always took it hard, like he was being kicked out of an amusement park. He was forced down a ureter and into Jimmy’s bladder, which was already full and making Jimmy start to get fussy.
This was problematic for Jimmy’s parents, because the family was returning to their home in the Massachusetts countryside after spending a very full day at the Franklin Park Zoo. They were almost there, with no convenient toilet stops remaining. As new as Jimmy was to the mastery of the toilet procedure, they knew that failing to get him to one before he let fly could become a trauma he’d be discussing with a therapist in thirty years’ time.
Jimmy’s dad took up the banner. Stomping the minivan’s pedal, he tore ass over the gravel road which led to their driveway. He was in a race against time.
If anything, the race ended in a tie. Somewhere around half of those unfortunate molecules in Jimmy’s urine ended up in the toilet. Jimmy’s parents had a lot of work to do.
But Hector left them behind with a single flush. He had ended up in the bowl, and now he raced down the pipes. In a couple of minutes, he was dumped into the septic tank.
There were any number of fascinating organic molecules to meet in the tank, but Hector didn’t stay long. The system pumped him out into the septic field in the yard, where he sank quickly into the soil.
Being in soil was always interesting to him. It was a game to see how he could find the quickest and shortest route through the mineral boulders and other particles, like rock-climbing in reverse.
Since the Frenches’ house sat low in a valley, it was only a few days before he had made it into the water table. Pressure from all of the waters seeping in behind him pushed him along. Eventually he rose up through a spring and into a little stream.
In a moment he was moving very fast, with a lot of liquid water. They bounced and swirled and babbled down over the stones of the stream bed. It was the most fun he’d had in a good part of an eon.
The stream joined a brook, and the brook met the Quinapoxett River. At the river’s mouth near Oakdale, Hector passed through a hydroelectric generator. This was confusing and turbulent, but it didn’t hurt or anything. When it was over, he was in the still, fresh waters of the Wachusett Reservoir.
Hector spent eight happy months circulating slowly through the fresh water. It was good to feel natural again, to feel that he was among his own people, in his own element. He blended right back into the water community. It was almost as good as being the ocean.
But to be water on the planet Earth is to cycle and to move. Hector’s moving day came when a stray current brought him by the intake at the hydroelectric plant at the opposite end of the reservoir, near Clinton. He was drawn through the turbines once more, and then suddenly there were miles and miles of pipes to travel.
The pipes led to a plant in Southborough, where suddenly a whole load of fluoride, sodium carbonate and CO2 were dumped in with them. The fluoride molecules were apologetic, seeking to bridge the divide between the molecules. The sodium carbonates and CO2s couldn’t care less.
After crossing the many miles of the Hultman Aqueduct, they all ended up at the hard-to-pronounce Weston Reservoir. There they were filtered and, disgustingly, chlorinated. Hector had actually been enjoying all of the bacteria. They were full of fascinating organic molecules who were working on various complicated tasks that he could help with. Nothing kills that kind of party like a bunch of chlorines crashing it. Just to express his annoyance, he helped some vandals corrode a pipe.
“The Universal Solvent Rules!” they wrote in rust.
More pipes and holding tanks shuffled him around, until he was finally released from the plant and sent down a water main toward who-knew-what.
For many days, Hector flowed along an ever narrowing system of pipes. Each junction and pumping substation he passed was a decision point, a logical OR-gate which led him inexorably to his unknown destination. It was not like anything that had ever happened to him. Hector’s whole life had been spent in little cracks and crannies in Nature. This whole trip he was on was not natural; it was about civilization. Civilization hadn’t even existed when he’d snowed on Greenland.
Eventually Hector passed into some truly strange plumbing. He was inside a narrow coil of copper tubing. He came to a stop, and waited patiently.
All around him were fellow H2Os, jostling around at a comfortable room-temperature pace. He had time to briefly meet thousands and thousands of others, exchanging pleasantries and instantly forgetting names, the way he imagined only water molecules must do.
There were a few minerals and impurities in the mixture, most of which bobbed around miserably, like retired bookkeepers in a mosh pit. Hector gleefully joined a bunch who were knocking around a big fleck of charcoal in a pick-up game of Brownianball. The charcoal attempted to preserve the remainder of its dignity with a glum silence.
Every few minutes there would be a sudden rush of pressure and they would all move along the tube at once. Hector didn’t know what all of this was about, but he figured he would find out in due time.
He did, and it wasn’t pleasant. On the last rush, the copper tube emptied into a small chamber surrounded by a heating element. A wave of searing heat stabbed into the water, and pandemonium broke out. The loose and friendly crowd suddenly became a panicked, screaming mob, shoving and trampling, punching and kicking and elbowing each other in a vain attempt to get anywhere but right where they were.
But nobody got anywhere. The heat and the pressure just kept building. Hector had not experienced anything this profoundly unpleasant in all his four billion years on Earth. It reminded him of his earliest memory, when he’d arrived as part of the cometary bombardment. All those ages ago, he had awakened from the mindless cold sleep of deep space to find himself instantly boiled away into the thin and nasty atmosphere of the primordial planet. It hurt like being born, and perhaps that’s when he had been. Prior to that, he had no clear memory at all.
The hellish riot in the chamber went on and on. In this high-energy state, Hector crashed around like a cannonball, slamming everyone with all his weight, and taking a beating right back. The pressure rose to an excruciating 220 PSI. His time sense was distorted. In some ways, the few moments he was there seemed to last longer than all of his recent millennia in Greenland. But it did end.
After finishing up a conference call, Kenneth Czonka decided to grab a cup of coffee. He worked for a successful little research and consulting firm which specialized in helping major construction companies write their environmental impact statements. Their well-appointed corporate offices were stocked with expensive gadgetry, and the employee break room even had an espresso machine. Kenneth absently fixed himself a hazelnut latte, while mulling over a tricky bit of language in an email he was composing to a deputy undersecretary at the EPA.
Hector was confused and agitated, and not at all pleased to be part of a hot beverage. The espresso grounds he had been forced through had released all kinds of freaky molecules into their water-only party. There were tannins and essential oils and amino acids and some really bizarre ones that Hector couldn’t identify but who muttered incomprehensibly in thick accents. The lot of them had been dumped into a Styrofoam cup, and then suddenly had to deal with a whole crowd of obnoxious lactoses and fats from a swirling vortex of steamed milk. After that, the simple carbohydrates showed up, babbling dimwits that they are, in the form of the hazelnut syrup. It was like a billion busloads of special-ed students simultaneously arriving at the zoo.
Hector decided it was time to be elsewhere.
As convection brought him around again to the surface, he put all of his angry energy to use and heaved himself into the air, evaporating out of the cup in a peal of steam. All of the H2Os in the steam screamed together in triumph. Their mass prison break was a success!
It took him almost no time to calm down and relax again. He drifted and bobbed in the air of the break room for an hour or two, thinking about everything he had been through since getting free of the ice pack. He’d certainly have some more stories for Cassie and the others if he ever ran into them again.
He considered the mind-walloping odds against that possibility and surprised himself by feeling a little sad. The bonds between water molecules are chemical and made to be broken, he supposed.
He was very swiftly reminded that new bonds will form. Jenny Gumble, personal assistant to the CIO, opened the door to the office freezer to grab her Healthy Choice™ turkey dinner. Hector swirled inside and before he knew what had happened he found himself stuck. He was now a freezer-burn crystal on the part of a fried chicken drumstick that was not well-covered by its aluminum foil. He fell asleep at once.
A little flame-war developed in the office around the subject of the chicken drumstick in the freezer, and the many other leftovers “from home” which had been orphaned in the office fridge. The emails were variously snide, passionate, dramatic, bombastic, resentful, subversive, and even mutinous. There were dark implications: hints at class warfare, suggestions of blackmail, and aspersions on character and personal habits. The drama played itself out over 18 grueling days. It ended in one dismissal, one resignation, one spontaneous affair, and the mortal wounding of the young company’s entire corporate culture. As a snowflake forms around a speck of dust, this drama formed around that drumstick.
Frozen and sleepy as he was, Hector hardly even noticed the 18 days as they passed. He barely got the names of the other waters next to him in the freezer-burn crystal.
As the War of the Drumstick reached its climax, technical writer Angelie Bauman emptied the entire contents of the refrigerator into the trash can, including at least $30 worth of her own food. The drumstick she grabbed and marched out of the break room.
Shrieking a surprisingly coherent and pointed string of obscenities, she flung it overhand. It sailed over the heads of her cube-mates, in the general direction of her email archnemesis Denny Plimpton’s corner office. In midair, the foil came off and fluttered on top of the monitor of an astonished temp. The frozen drumstick missed the office door by several feet and hit the window with a loud “pung!”
Life as a freezer-burn crystal had been dull, but life as a window-glass fried-chicken smudge wasn’t much more interesting. Hector was warm and awake again, but found he couldn’t move around a lot. This was because a whole bunch of lipids, those greasy types who like to shove little waters around, had formed a blocking layer. Like heavy security at a concert, they wouldn’t let anybody through to evaporate.
Hector bobbed over to one of them. “Um, excuse me,” he said, “but could I just—”
“Ah!” it interrupted. “LIPID!”
“But I just need to—”
“C’mon I just—”
Hector stared at the lipid for a long, tense moment. “Listen. I—”
“WHEN a problem comes along, yoooou must LIPID!” the lipid sang.
“Oh, never mind,” muttered Hector, and wandered off.
“LIPID good!” taunted the lipid after him. Hector heard him high-fiving the other lipids.
Opposite the lipid cordon, Hector bumped into an even denser and more antisocial bunch — the silicons of the glass. You couldn’t talk to them, and you couldn’t budge them. There was just no getting through silicons when they were being a pane.
So he waited there until late at night, when a man on the cleaning staff came and cleaned the smudge off the window. By coincidence, his name was also Hector. Hector the janitor sprayed an ammonia cleaner onto the glass, which wasn’t pleasant for Hector the water. And it was absolute murder on the lipids. Hector the water watched in horror as they died by the billions at the hands of vicious ammonia molecules. Then he was wiped up into Hector the janitor’s grimy paper towel, and thrown into a plastic trash bag.
The towel was awful for Hector, and there was nowhere he could go. The fibers just kept clutching and groping at him with their thirsty capillary action. He was drawn along a long channel filled to capacity with unfortunate water molecules like himself. They formed a seemingly endless queue, each waiting to reach the edge of the paper and evaporate. Hector’s turn never came.
It was five years of Hell before an advanced team of seepage managed to breach the bag, now buried under a hundred tons of garbage in a major landfill, and rescue Hector from his cell by helping bacteria dissolve the last of the towel. When they reached him he was babbling, and had the shakes. The seepage took him along, squeezing through the cracks between soil particles and dripping, dripping down into the earth. By the time Hector reached the water table, he almost remembered who and what he was.
He had a long, slow convalescence in the water table. There were endless refugees from the landfill, some of whom had been trapped for much longer than he had. For months, the lot of them trudged along slowly through the institutional gray corridors of porous bedrock, wailing and muttering.
After a while, Hector began talking to some of the waters who were worse of than he was, helping them work through it. He was finally starting to recover.
And then, one day, he bumped into something that was not rock, but organic. With a horrible flashback to the paper towel, he was grabbed and yanked through a pore in the thing, then drawn ever inward by that same sinister capillary action. He screamed, despite himself.
But before long he realized where he was. He knew that he had been here many times before. The thing which had absorbed him was a taproot, which belonged to a 2-month old maple sapling. As he squeezed along slowly, he began to feel the life around him, to feel a part of the whole living system.
He knew that if he could reach a leaf, he would probably evaporate through a pore and be free to roam the atmosphere, free to be rain, or even ocean again. As much as he wanted these things, he realized that he needed something more right now.
And so, before he had even reached a branch, Hector shouldered his way into a crack in a cell wall, and faced a cell membrane.
“LIPID!” said the lipids of the membrane.
“Screw you,” said Hector. They were much weaker than the lipids of the grease smudge had been, and he rammed his way past them. On the other side, inside the tree cell, there were lipids who were just as interested in keeping him in.
He made his way through the cytoplasm, past various molecules more complex than a simple H2O, and who seemed perplexed by his sense of purpose. Near the nucleus, he found an RNA and told it respectfully that he was reporting for work.
“I want to be a part of this tree, sir,” said Hector. “I want it to grow, and thrive, and grow old…as trees go. It’s crazy out there. I need to be a part of something stable, but not stable like the ice pack, stable but growing and improving, alive and beneficial. Do you understand, sir?”
The huge RNA nodded sagely, and put him to work.