Chapter 23: Damn Miners!
After we’d recovered, we got up and walked slowly across the scarred desert, enjoying it as much as we could, our bare feet on the hot sand, the wind on our skin. In our invisible state, we couldn’t feel the heat of the sun on our skin, the light going straight through to the ground, but we could feel the baking warmth of the desert air. I actually liked this sensation better.
When we got back to our bikes, we dropped our invisibility bubbles and assembled a high-calorie cold lunch there in our hiding spot, needing to replenish our energies from our day’s exertions so far, and to fuel our next stage.
We were low on water, but our path would take us past a stream, so I wasn’t worried. Early in our time together, Kaitlyn and I had worked out the trick of magical water disinfection. We had to pour the water back and forth between our technological containers, but as it streamed back and forth, we were able to zap the bugs in the water as they flowed past. With just a few pours, we were able to make the water as clean as you’d get out of the best water purification plants. By using our collapsible camping cookwear as intermediate containers, we were able to pull the trick off while keeping our actual water bottles full. It was better than the nasty taste of water purification tablets or carrying extra filtration gear.
“Ready?” Kaitlyn said to me, and I agreed that I was.
Our sweaty bike clothing had fully dried out by this time in the desert air, even the thick foam rubber of our shorts’ chamois pads, so we slipped them comfortably back on. Kaitlyn and I had tried running on internally stored power while wearing such high-tech fabrics, but we found we had no chance of holding onto our magic. No, it was now time to put magic away and return to technology. That was fine; I liked tech plenty, too, and I’d just sated myself on nudity, nature, and nookie.
Wordlessly, we proceeded on to the fourth mine site, another three hours’ ride away from the first. By the sun, I judged we wouldn’t get there until at least 5pm, maybe 6.
We mostly took back-roads across the desert, my memory for this kind of path-finding problem pretty good. I attributed it to my skill with spatial geometry, which in turn was why I’d made a pretty good software developer back when I was in that business.
As we rode, I began thinking about ways to improve the software models I was building of the way magic worked, getting somewhat eager to get back home and start implementing them. On one break by the side of the road, I actually filled several pages in a small notebook I carried with ideas before Kaitlyn got impatient and urged me onward. She was the scientist half of our couple, and also eager to continue establishing the principles of scientific magic, but I was the practical implementor. She got more joy out of thinking through the problems, coming up with experiments, and running them than I did, while I wanted to use the results to make practical predictions about things we could do with the magic, once the software got good enough to begin modeling our apparent reality. Right now, they were pretty poor. Need more data!
At the fourth mine, we found a whole list of problems, fixing the most acute with sex magic, noting the rest for use against JRE.
After we’d trekked from the mine to our improvised camping spot back far enough from the road that we could sleep through the traffic the night’s shift change would cause, we were laying on the sleeping pad atop the blanket alone, having left the tent packed up. It was a warm clear night, and my check on the weather at the library had told me it wasn’t supposed to rain for at least the next week. I knew from experience that that meant we might not see rain until October. We always got a pretty good bucketing right around Halloween. I felt sorry for the way this so often ruined the kids’ fun.
Halloween wasn’t a large part of my experience growing up in India, but I’d seen it occasionally in American TV shows and movies, which we got a lot of, so I was familiar with the practice. I’d enjoyed my first few Halloweens here in the US, hosting the neighborhood kids, a participant at last. Since moving down to Moab, outside of town, I hadn’t gotten any more visitors. I kinda missed it now.
That brought my thoughts around. “Kaitlyn, let’s go as wizards for Halloween.”
“A bit early to be thinking about that, isn’t it?”
“It was just running around in my mind.” I explained, “I’ve been thinking about the clothing problem in wizardry.”
“Not wearing clothes is a problem now?” she teased.
“Sometimes,” I replied seriously. “You remember a month or so ago when I observed that in the fictional literature, wizards and witches always seem to be wearing long flowing robes, and how in the times those stories are set, all fabric was home-spun from natural fibers?”
“Sure,” she agreed.
“Well, I wonder… While mage robes could just be a coincidence of fashion or a literary device, what if there’s a kernel of truth in those stories? Robes let you get naked quickly, they tend to flow out away from the body while wearing them, and they conceal your bare feet if you go unshod. My current thinking began coalescing after you invented the magical floating scheme back in Salt Lake: with a long robe on and bared feet in contact with Gaia, you might be able to counteract the magical drain from the robe, keeping a full reserve!”
“Yeah, we’ve got to try that!” she agreed enthusiastically.
“And we know a seamstress,” I said, referring to her mother, who’d learned that craft among many others growing up on a farm. “Did your mother teach you to sew, too?” I asked.
“Only simple repairs. I can’t make clothing from scratch like mom can, but it can’t be too difficult to sew a robe, can it?” she asked rhetorically. “We’ll have to find a source of home-spun fabric, hopefully something that isn’t too scratchy feeling.”
I just shrugged and went on, “And we’ll wear nothing under the robe.”
“Barefoot in Moab in late October, with a draft up the skirt. Sounds frigid,” she judged.
“But worth trying, yeah? I’m not proposing that we go running around in wizard robes in our normal lives, but on Halloween, we could get away with doing the experiment.”
“It might just work,” she replied thoughtfully.
“Walking on the sidewalk is still a problem,” I observed, “so it really isn’t all that practical even on Halloween, but maybe you could devise a series of experiments we could try while standing in the park, or on lawns and such.”
“Something an onlooker would dismiss as just Halloween trickery,” she replied, getting into the spirit of the thing. “Yeah, I’m going to have to think about that.”
“We’ve got the miles to do it in. I’ve been thinking about my modeling projects.”
“You haven’t been thinking about my butt and thighs?” she teased.
“That, too, but don’t stop showing off. I’ll happily be distracted by those,” I returned anxiously.
“I like being in back and watching yours, too,” she said quietly, and we returned to cuddling for a while.
Then, apropos of nothing, she burst out, “Damn miners!”
“We wouldn’t have to be on this trek if it wasn’t for them!” she explained heatedly.
“Well, it’s not my idea of a vacation, either, but it is fulfilling work,” I responded.
“Sure,” she agreed, “but wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to do the work at all?”
“We were just at a potassium mine. Got any idea what they use it for?” I quizzed her. “Why go to all that effort to get it, I mean?”
“No,” she admitted.
“A lot of it goes into fertilizer,” I responded. “They also mine a lot of phosphorous and combine that in various combinations with nitrogen extracted from the atmosphere. Without NPK fertilizers — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, from their chemical elements’ symbols — your family farm wouldn’t be competitive.”
“We don’t need fertilizer now,” she pointed out. “We can use sex magic to grow our crops.”
“Oh, sure, and I think I’d like to add that to our list of experiments. Maybe for the next growing season, we do one of your family farm’s fields entirely that way, no fertilizer at all. It’ll be fun and educational, but that doesn’t scale. We have to feed something like seven and a half billion people, Kaitlyn. Without chemical fertilizers, we’d probably only be able to feed one, maybe two billion from the same amount of land. The studies I’ve read suggest that between urbanization and population sprawl, we’re already using all of the good land, so just making more farms won’t fix the problem: you’d necessarily have to use less arable land, meaning those farms would need more fertilizer than the current farms just to properly produce.”
I let the farmer’s daughter stew on that, then asked the expert, “How many farms are there? Just US alone is fine.”
“Um, I’m not sure,” she said. “Something like a few million, I think.”
“That’s pretty impressive, if you think about it: 2 million divided into the current population of the US means we’re feeding roughly 165 people per farm. Not long ago in human history, it was more like 10:1, most of those ten being the farm family themselves. Under that system, you pretty much had to have feudalism, since the peasants were too busy keeping themselves and their lords fed to do other things,” I observed. “Things like biking through the desert on quixotic quests,” I added pointedly.
Kaitlyn just sort of grumped, so I went on. “So, let’s say we do get into the organic farming game, you and I using sex magic to fertilize the fields, replenishing them with minerals that way instead of using chemical fertilizers. How many fields do you think we could do in a season? We could only work maybe 9 months out of the year, lest we be forced to do snu-snu in the snow.” Kaitlyn laughed. Ah! I’d caught a Futurama fan! Excellent!
Kaitlyn was getting into the spirit of the argument now, so she started muttering to herself, “Two hundred seventy days, maybe three fields per day… Eight hundred or so?” Then her face fell.
“Yeah, not a patch on 2 million farms,” I agreed. “And your calculation just assumed no weekends or holidays, and three epic humping sessions a day.”
“That doesn’t sound entirely bad,” she pointed out.
“Sure, but even as unlikely as it is that we could keep up with that schedule, it’s still nowhere near good enough.” Then after thinking about that a bit, I added, “And how are we going to pay our bills with that kind of side hustle anyway?”
“Sell the porn streaming rights, of course, silly,” she replied quickly.
I chuckled at that image, adding “Actually, it’ll be necessary. Rule 34, you know.”
“Rule what?” she demanded.
“There is porn of everything on the Internet,” I explained. “No exceptions.”
“Eww!” was her only answer.
“No exceptions,” I repeated. “The Internet demands magical organic farm fertilization porn, so we must provide this. Who else can?”
Kaitlyn rose up on an elbow and looked steadily down at me while I tried to maintain a straight face, but I eventually cracked up laughing.
“Goofball!” she accused, flicking my forehead with a finger.
As my mirth cooled, she stared thoughtfully out at the night, then looked me straight in my eye and said, “Our kids, then. Won’t they be mages, too?”
I’d thought about this idly myself while pushing through the miles on this trip, so I had my answer ready. “It depends almost entirely on how well the mage trait breeds in the population. Do two mages produce all mage children, or one in four as with recessive genes, or what?”
Kaitlyn shrugged. “I have no idea. I guess we’ll just have to find out,” she said with a bit of steel in her eye.
“Let’s say half our kids end up mages and that somehow we can rope them all into this cult of magical organic farming by the time they hit their ages of consent. First off, that implies that they’re either all banging each other incestuously or that we’ve somehow managed to find other mages by then.”
“Yyyyeah… Let’s go with option #2,” Kaitlyn said.
“Indeed. So, we pair the half of our kids with magical talents up with other mages that we produce from somewhere,” waving my hand vaguely with the last word. “And they in turn do the same.”
“Let me guess: you’re going to math at me again,” she accused.
I’d never heard that word used as a transitive verb, but I just agreed, “Yup. Let’s say we two bang out twelve kids.” She winced at that thought, knowing she’d be carrying the main load, yet unable to reject the notion easily, since it was her idea. “After some twenty years, the first magically talented one goes off and finds a mage spouse, and they in turn bang out twelve more kids, half of which are again magically talented. The mathematical way of expressing that generation growth curve is 6⁰ + 6¹ + 6² + 6³, and so on, the first term being equal to 1, which is us, the initial couple. Each term after that is the number of couples in the subsequent generation, so the second term is our six magically-talented kids with their spouses, or six to the first power. Each of them then produces another six magically talented kids, six squared, and so on.”
“All right,” she stipulated, taking my math uncritically.
“The first three terms sum to 44 mage couples: us, our mage children, and our mage grandkids.”
“You mean 88,” she corrected.
“No, 44. Remember, it takes 2 people to do sex magic. That’s also why the first term is six to the zeroth power, equal to 1, not 2.”
“Oh, right. Do go on.”
I did. “Once we let that last generation grow up to the point they’re starting to think about having kids, we two will probably be ready for walkers and dentures, but we’ll have 44 mage couples, assuming you and I are somehow able to still participate by then.”
Kaitlyn winced at the image of us helping the project out in our geriatric way, but then she brightened. “Hey Davie, why assume we’re going to be in bad health in our eighties and nineties? If we can heal ourselves now, maybe we would still be participating in the project at that age!”
That thought stunned me. “Wow, you might be right. There are a lot of old tales about powerful individuals living to uncommonly high ages. Maybe they were mages! Something to think about. Anyway, with all 44 couples doing 800-some farms per year, that’s…what…35 thousand farms per year or so? We’re roughly eighty years into the project now, yet still orders of magnitude shy of where we need to be to succeed with it.”
“For the sake of argument, let’s posit that mages can’t extend our lives much, but we can live healthy right up to the point of death, so that another twenty years or so on, there’s a good chance we two are out of the picture. At that point the third generation will start making babies to keep this enterprise going, adding another…um…216 mages to the pool. Some of our eldest children and grandchildren may be out of the game by that point, too, so round it off to 200 total mages by then, doing roughly a hundred and sixty-thousand farms. Still nowhere near enough.”
“By that point, the rate of mage loss through age, infirmity, and accident will drop below statistically significant levels as the geometric population growth curve really starts to take off. The fourth generation will be…” I had to stop and calculate here, “…something like thirteen hundred mage couples, plus a hundred or so of the previous generations’ couples still helping, covering something around a million farms. That’s roughly a hundred years from now, and we’re still doing only about half the farms presently in the US. I’d expect the US to have more and bigger farms to help feed the world population which will probably still be growing by then, not yet collapsing back toward sustainability.”
I took a breath and went on, “So, we’ll have to get into the fifth generation before we’ve got just the US covered, never mind the world, and that all assumes we can rope complete generations of children into following this path, they all are as fecund as average as I’m proposing for us, and they all work nine months out of the year with no vacations and weekends!”
She just lay her head sadly on my chest. “Damn,” she cursed quietly.
“And we have to do it all without creating massive in-breeding. The simple fact is, Kaitlyn, we’ll starve the planet if we stop using chemical fertilizers,” I summarized. “Organic farming is a first-world luxury, not a desirable end goal for feeding the planet.”
“We can’t mine the planet for minerals forever, Davie,” she pointed out stubbornly.
“Indeed. The trend is population collapse in the developed world. Hopefully we can begin bringing the world’s population back down to sustainable levels before we run out of mine-able fertilizer minerals. Otherwise…war, famine, destruction.”
She just lay there, then pounded on my chest in a frustrated way, so I added teasingly, “Want to get started on the project, then? We’re both young enough to get twelve kids out.”
“You’d do that?” she asked.
“If you thought it was a worthwhile project, yes. It’s not my idea of the best way to solve world hunger, and I have no ambitions of leading an eco-cult, but if you said that’s what we’re doing, then I’d go along with it. We’d be dead of old age before we could see whether it was going to succeed, but in the meantime, I think we’d see enough improvement locally to be satisfied with our lives by that point.”
We both lay there in thought for a bit, then I added, “It’d probably be better to spend our efforts on finding other mages, though. If we did decide to make this project the prime goal of magical society, it’d be better to start with ten thousand or so mages already out in the world than to try to breed them all ourselves.”
“I wonder how many there really are?” she asked quietly.
“No idea. It’s going to be hard to find them.” We both knew why. Almost no one got far enough out into pure nature these days to discover that they were a mage, and of those that did, they were almost always going to be clothed and carrying too much tech to discover their talents anyway. Then there was the expression rate: magical talent had to be much rarer than the optimistic 1-in-2 breeding success rate I’d used earlier just for the sake of the argument. Just going on the sketchy historical record, I figured it had to be about as rare as genetic diseases, and it may be for the same reason: perhaps there was a mage gene. If it was one in ten thousand or one in a hundred thousand, would we ever find another mage without somehow going public with the project?
We both fell asleep there in the desert, taking our thoughts about the project with us into our slumbers.