by Coral Alejandra Moore
The sun overhead burned a ghoulish red that made Inés distinctly uncomfortable. She adjusted the straps of her filter mask behind her head for what seemed like the hundredth time and then took an experimental breath. Better. She’d been lucky in her choice of location for her workshop until now. Though other parts of the Caribbean had been on fire for months, mostly she hadn’t noticed the effects on her sunny hillside here in Puerto Rico. But the sky was darkening at an alarming rate even though it was nowhere near sunset and white flakes drifted to the ground like the first gentle snowfall of winter. Only it wasn’t winter. And it never snowed here.
If this kept up, today’s testing would have to be postponed. And if the wind stayed shifted in this direction for more than a few hours they would have to evacuate because of the fire danger. The equipment would have to be abandoned, and she had no idea where she’d find the funding to start over.
Grants from the government in San Juan trying to build momentum for clean energy alternatives had allowed her to chase her dream without worrying where the money to live would come from, but it couldn’t buy the expensive components to make that dream a reality. She’d needed investors for that, and if this test failed, they weren’t likely to want to pour even more money into the project. Not without data to prove this could work.
She pulled the cracked solar panel up a few centimeters before disconnecting the lines and wires underneath.
“What are you humming? Is that Calle 13?” Clarita’s voice relayed through the speakers at the base of the testing platform. She was inside with the instruments, away from the smoke and ash.
Inés replayed the tune in her head as she carefully lifted the nearby replacement panel by the edges and set it in place. “Yeah. Why?”
“I want to be able to relate the story of this moment in complete detail when someone asks what I was doing when…”
Inés bit her lip as she bent her hand at an uncomfortable angle to clip a wire in place on the back of the new panel. “When what?”
“When we built the first synthetic tree and earned the Nobel Prize. Keep up, nena.”
Inés blew out a chuckling breath that distorted her mask. “Hard to keep up when you keep skipping ahead. We’re not winning anything if we can’t keep these panels from breaking long enough to get her running.”
Clarita clicked a few keys. “Strain measurements are right at the edge of tolerances.”
Inés swore under her breath. The panels weren’t the right size. They were only off by a fraction of a millimeter but that was enough to cause them to crack every time she turned around. She was going to have to find another manufacturer. Probably a local one so she could have more confidence in the supply chain. If this worked. “Just needs to hold long enough to get her going. She can regulate the flex of the panels on her own after that.” Inés connected two more hoses to the back and then snapped the panel in place. “How’s she looking?”
“Perfect.” A flurry of fast clicking burst from Clarita’s fingers. The churn of the water pump sounded briefly. “We’ve got current on the panels.”
Inés pushed to her feet and backed away a few steps so she could see her whole creation at once. She wasn’t much to look at, but Inés loved the three-meter tower of silvery black panels all the same. They’d done a few scale tests, and all the math worked out, but seeing the entire complex machine assembled for the first time after the years of work that had brought them to this point was a vindication like nothing she’d ever felt in her life.
Her trunk was a meter across, and four thick limbs hung motionless at her sides. Clarita had wanted a clever name for their creation, maybe an acronym, but Inés had taken to calling her simply Sol, and it had stuck. Inés looked up at the sky and frowned. The smoke wasn’t too bad yet. Hopefully there was still enough sun.
The lights on Sol’s readout slowly came to life, blinking first red, then yellow, and finally green. Inés let out a long breath. “Indicators are green.”
“She’s breaking down water now. Oxygen emissions are looking good.”
“Are the bacteria picking up the hydrogen?”
Clarita hesitated, clicking a few times. “Yup.”
“Almost there,” Inés muttered under her breath. “You can do it.”
The next fifteen minutes of waiting were agonizing, but Sol’s system was more complex than just harnessing solar energy into traditional batteries. With a complement of specially designed bacteria, Sol turned that energy into clean-burning fuel that could be stored indefinitely. It was a marriage of technology and biology that leveraged the powers of both to surpass what either could do alone.
Inés thought about wiping down the panels again. Ash speckled the shiny surfaces faster than she’d like. Sol had tiny sprayers that could clean the panels, but she needed to be producing water before those would kick in. Inés peered at the sky again. It was getting darker.
The red glow of the fires painted the ridge above. They were running out of time.
Clarita startled her out of her contemplation, “The servos are turning!”
Her heart thumped in her throat. It was really going to happen this time. “What’s the output look like?”
Clarita was silent a few seconds as she calculated. “Ten percent. ¡Ea rayo!”
Inés knew she should shut it all down and crunch some numbers. She itched to get her hands on the data and figure out where they could improve output. “Boot her up.”
“If we need to evacuate there’s no way we can move her. She’s going to have to move herself. We’re jumping to the next phase of the test.”
“Now who’s skipping ahead?” Clarita’s laughter was infectious, even when it was filtered through the speakers. “Starting her up.”
Clarita was silent long enough that Inés was sure the start-up sequence had failed. Maybe there wasn’t enough power to run the CPU? Maybe there was a bug in the program? Clarita had written Sol’s complex code as painstakingly as Inés had built her body, but there had been no way to tell—until now—whether or not it would work.
The whirring started off so softly that Inés was certain she imagined it. She didn’t believe her ears until one of Sol’s limbs started to rise, straining toward the sun.
“She’s online.” Clarita sounded like she couldn’t believe it either. “She’s calculating optimum angles and moving under her own power.”
Smaller, thinner panels branched out from the limb as it unfurled, looking more like a palm frond every second. Another limb began to move, shuddering as Sol redistributed her mass to compensate.
Clarita whistled. “She’s up to twelve percent conversion. She’s doubling natural photosynthesis and she doesn’t even have two limbs deployed.”
“Is she generating water yet?”
“One hundred percent agua pura collecting in her reservoir. Output volume doesn’t match input, but it’s close.”
“And it’s clean.” A third limb came to life, lifting and unfolding, turning silver panels to the sky. Sol was everything Inés had dreamed of, and so much more: she was hope.
Clarita whispered, “I had no idea she’d be so beautiful.”
Sol’s leaves shimmered as they caught the faint rays of light that filtered through the smoky air. The solar tree looked exactly as Inés had drawn her years before, when she had decided she was going to save the world.
Coral Alejandra Moore (she/her) has always been the kind of girl who makes up stories. Fortunately, she never grew out of that. She writes character driven fiction, and enjoys conversations about genetics and microbiology as much as those about vampires and werewolves.
She has an MFA in Writing from Albertus Magnus College and is an alum of Viable Paradise XVII. She has been published by Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed Magazine, and Mermaid’s Monthly. Currently she lives in the beautiful state of Washington with the love of her life and a dangerously smart Catahoula Leopard Dog where she rides motorcycles, raises chickens, and drinks all the coffee.
In her most recent venture she is the co-editor and co-publisher of Constelación Magazine, a bilingual speculative fiction magazine publishing stories in Spanish and English.
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