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Operation Century

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My name is Timothy Shemwell, and I am fifteen years a retired astronaut of the North American Space Agency. Ten years after my final mission, I sought to share its story at length, but couldn't muster the courage, as it was still too fresh in my mind. Five years later, and I can finally take comfort in sharing the disturbing events of Operation Century. This tale should serve as a cautionary reminder that mankind should not feel so confident in his ability to manipulate life to his whim — the results are not always what we desired in the first place.

My story's preface begins in the year 1983, sixty years before my birth in 2043. That was the year that a secret project was conceived following the discovery that bacteria and varieties of moss behave very peculiarly in a zero gravity environment, as opposed to other lifeforms. Bacteria flourish in zero gravity, their colonies growing frighteningly rapidly and the individuals adapting and evolving to become increasingly lethal in record short spans of time. The normally flat, stout moss instead decides to spin into strange spiral patterns, while all other known plants simply lose orientation and spread randomly without the guidance of Earth's gravity. Animals reacted as expected, suffering a predictable loss of coordination. But NASA researchers, having recorded these observations with amazement, had one question in mind — how quickly and to what extremes would complex life be affected by zero gravity over long periods of time?

The answer to their question was the huge endeavor to construct the Self Sustaining Free Space Terrarium (SSFST). The project cost billions of dollars to finance, but the United States government was eager to comply with the costly ambition, seeing an opportunity to beat the Soviet Union in another field during the Cold War. The project, eventually titled Operation Century, required the acquisition of several hundred Eurasian wolves, common rabbits, common grasses, apple, spruce, maple, and willow trees, dozens of tons of soil and thousands of gallons of water, and a huge variety of bacterium cultures, not to mention a number of other mammals, reptiles, fishes, amphibians, and insects. The result of these mass purchases was an expansive and all-inclusive artificial ecosystem painstakingly constructed and designed to remain stable while the SSFST escaped Earth's atmosphere and began its free-float in the void between Earth and the moon. It was completed in fall of 1984, and launched at the opening of winter that same year, with the intent of being examined again after a century had passed.

Its stability was observed from afar over the course of the next one hundred years by NASA officials, always kept strictly secret for fear of public outcry against the ethical issues with Operation Century. Even then, all lower level NASA employees were kept deliberately uninformed and distracted by other ongoing efforts.

When the eightieth year had passed, search began for candidates to explore the SSFST in the next twenty years. Over that time frame, countless astronauts (also uninformed of the precise details) were denied the voyage for various reasons, usually medical or, in one or two cases, religious. The smallest details, up to and including the astronaut's family history, disqualified many, but not myself — in perfectly healthy condition at age twenty-one, with a flawless family background and no sign at all of possible ethical qualms (being a man of unadulterated science and reason who understands that sacrifices are necessary for progress in some cases), I was undeniably the perfect candidate for the first manned mission to explore SSFST — twenty years later, after a very rigorous exercise regimen and intensive training on the usage of bafflingly complex hand-weaponry, which I was told would accompany me on my travel.

I was kept in the dark for as long as NASA could keep me trapped there. It wasn't until spring of 2084 that I was finally reluctantly given information about the mission. I was shocked that something so incredible had successfully remained out of public notice for one hundred years, and amazed at the realization that at the time of my birth, the project was already fifty-nine years in the making. Regardless, I was intrigued and even eager to see the ultimate outcome of these years of waiting and report back to NASA — even if the intensive weapons training was concerning, given the circumstances.

Of the journey to the SSFST, there is nothing to report — so I will skip directly to my arrival there, where the real story begins.

My shuttle attached easily to the port of the terrarium, which had been ingeniously planned ahead in order to match the anticipated future developments of shuttle technology. When both sets of doors opened wide to permit my entry, I was met by a musty odor as of natural secretions of plants, and a faint whitish mist wafted into my shuttle — for my safety, I was enclosed within a specialized suit designed to filter out contaminated air, should it be necessary. I glided smoothly into the terrarium, brushing past free specks of dirt and strange organic globules.

I needed not venture far before witnessing the awesome sight of the terrarium, left to its own devices for a century in complete weightlessness. What I saw was so foreign and brand new that I could hardly register at the time that what I was seeing originated from Earth. Plants had devoured everything within, with hardly a sight of soil save for what drifted around me. They had taken root along the walls, in various crevices and with their spindly limbs hanging weirdly, swaying in all directions slowly. The fruits were all unrecognizable, strange and misshapen as a result of a lack of gravity — even their coloration was affected, all of the fruits in sight now variegated. Unusual muffled sounds came from here and there, reverberating in such a way that pinpointing their origins was difficult — undoubtedly of organic origin, but from what sort of lifeforms they originated, I could not tell.

The farther I floated in, the increasingly surreal my environment became. I felt as if I were submerged in a thickly overgrown lake, the hypnotic swaying of the plants around me reminiscent of the way that marine weeds shift under the waves, and the tiny particles of dirt reminding me of the specks of sand and debris which wander underwater. The only thing that I had not yet seen was something animal, although I occasionally thought that I heard their sounds around me. I wandered with a projectile weapon in hand — I was not risking being attacked unarmed.

When at last I stumbled upon the animal result of a hundred years of accelerated evolution in a zero gravity environment, I was at once appalled and horrified, for I realized that the noises around me were originating from within the thickly matted leaves and limbs of the malleable plants. As I weaved through them, closer to their stems, I began to discover signs of animal excrement that I had jostled free from the leaves. What I uncovered was gruesome — a large, hairless mammalian creature clutched the trunk of what passed for a tree, its withered limbs wrapping desperately around it and its sagging jaws gnashing while it emitted a pitiful squealing noise. Its eyes, it seemed, had gone defunct, being completely blank and pale while the thing slowly swiveled its head around in search of the intruder. The creature, as awful as it appeared, was canine. It was evidenced by the tapered ears which dangled at odd angles and the faint remainders of paws at the end of its useless limbs.

I was disgusted, but I pressed onward and continued to search through the various plants, making similar finds — the Eurasian wolves which had been brought on board had developed into this shameful mockery, reduced to a life of clinging as a parasite to the plants of the terrarium. Additionally, I discovered one or two specimens of what were once rabbits, having become gangly odd things which hovered limply with enlarged, swollen eyes and a permanently open mouth, completely devoid of teeth. Their bodies were lean and, as a whole, they now resembled something aquatic and miserable.

I left prematurely, unwilling to further uncover the horrors of the past. Those awful half-monsters that I witnessed on the SSFST no longer live, since as an act of mercy, I deliberately left the port of the terrarium wide open after closing that of my shuttle and departing — everything contained within was destroyed by the vacuum of space in the span of seconds. One hundred years of immoral experimentation gone in seconds. That was my final mission with NASA. Despite my mercy, I do not feel redeemed. It is, in part, thanks to the understanding that I eagerly supported this effort for twenty years, and up to arrival remained enthused.

Man, I reiterate, should not confide in artificial manipulation of life. The end does not justify the means, especially when the end is nothing more than creatures that were not meant to ever exist and therefore suffer.

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