Fiction Science Fiction



Evan Kaiser

           Algore 42996 smelled the smoke way before Superintendant Calculator B78 did.

           Al was a farmer. He nursed ostrich-fern fiddleheads, a critical nutrient in the Habitat, and his superior facility with the baby ferns earned him elite status. As a result, he guessed the machines would keep him around the standard five extra years. Not that longevity as such meant anything to him. Or so he told himself.

           Twenty-five. Thirty. Who cared? But he did think it'd be worthwhile to live long enough to watch his younger clones arrive on the scene. The machines expected all clones of a given lineage to behave alike, as their developmental environments were indistinguishable from one another. But Al believed the similarity was inexact. Were he allowed to observe and catalog his own line, he'd be in a position to detect subtle cognitive differences the machines would miss. These could be traced to unique environmental inputs that could be corrected. Al thought such a study would comprise an exemplary contribution to the Habitat's project of self-study and improvement.

           It was early morning. Al had exchanged greetings with the resident Calculator on this day for reaping ¾ pulling the young ferns gently from their hydroponic planter and feeding them onto the conveyor.

           But something didn't smell right. The fresh, green odor of the plants gave way to something acrid, and Al recognized it to be a sign of combustion. It reminded him of an incident with a burnt-out bedroom surveillance camera when he was a teenager. Back then, it took ten whole minutes for that particular Superintendent Calculator to notice what had happened and instruct Al to replace the camera.

           When the Habitat began, human survival depended on prompt and accurate detection of smoke and poisons. But after ten generations, the hyper-clean environment and near-perfection of generators, instruments, and electronics meant that capability had atrophied.

           By Al's time, machines had lousy noses.

           But there was no problem with Al's nose. He rose from his seat and ran to the farm's entrance, fifty meters from his station by the hydroponics. Superintendant Calculator B78's cameras flashed red.

           "Algore 42996, what is your purpose?"

           "I smell something burning, B78."

           Al stuck his head out of the portal and looked up and down the corridor.

           "That is improbable, 42996."

           "I smell it."

           "Burning implies mechanical or electric malfunction. Perhaps one of your specimens died and now putrefies."

           "I know that smell, B78. And whatever's burning is not in the farm. It's coming from down the hall."

           Algore pointed in the direction of the commissary and looked around. He saw heads poking out of portals, and glances and nods being offered, up and down the hallway. The community of alarm inflaming his own, Algore stepped back into the fiddlehead farm chamber.

           "Obviously, others detect what I do, B28. Something's wrong."

           There was a moment of silence as, Algore surmised, the farm's Superintendant Calculator communed with his mechanical brothers. All the machines would come to the same conclusion simultaneously.

           "42996, your olfactory system is probably correct, though I cannot confirm it. There has been an electrical overload in the kitchen. It may have produced a fire, something you may recollect from your basic physics teaching modules."

           "Fire? That sounds ominous, B28."

           "The need to feed humans has always been a burden and point of weakness in our hermetic protective system, and even at low probability, at some point failure was inevitable. Yes...data is coming in now...heat is building in and around the feeding unit, despite the deployment of all working fire-quenching systems."

           "What systems?"

           " Unfortunately, over two hundred and sixty-two years, forty-seven percent of chemical fire-retardant systems have degraded. These would have put out an oil or electrical-based fire in the kitchen, but none were available. So nearby water-based systems were deployed instead. But these were partially degraded themselves, and served only to make things worse. I'm afraid to tell you it is ninety-eight percent probably that this fire will consume the entire Habitat."

           The Superintendant Calculator's matter-of-fact declaration of imminent demise was met with silence. Its cameras swept the farm.

           "42996? 42996? Algore? Where did you go? Algore?"

           But Al had already fled into the hallway, running away from the presumed flames originating in the canteen. He had never before in his life seen a real fire but recalled what he had learned by direct download ¾ and understood the threat. People emerged from labs and farms on either side of the corridor, and a crowd swelled. It didn't take long for the throng to turn into a mob and the flight to become a stampede. There was jostling. At this point, Al, worried about the possibility of crippling injury, turned into an unoccupied side alley.

           Despite the distance he'd put between himself and the fire, the smell of smoke had grown stronger.

           It occurred to him that if the fire couldn't be contained, and the environment outside the Habitat was toxic ¾ as was solemnly announced without fail by the Calculators every solstice ¾ everyone was doomed. But 'everyone' wasn't his concern.

           His own survival was all that mattered.

           Surely, he thought, there was some small space, some refuge within the Habitat, that would provide a defense against the flames and smoke ¾- a tiny crawlspace someplace where he could wait out the fire until it was safe to emerge and reclaim the Habitat for himself.

           Vague notions about oxygen consumption, air displacement, and conductive heat rattled about in the back of his mind, but he ignored them. He had to act now ¾ pesky details could wait.

           How was the Habitat laid out? Well, Al knew there were eight floors. The lower two housed bedchambers. The middle six comprised all the labs and farms ¾ Al's fiddlehead farm being on floor number seven. Floors nine and ten housed the generators, filters, sensors, and servers. No human beings were expected up on nine and ten, so the corridors that intertwined between the machine rooms were narrow shafts built to accommodate reparative robots. These were the basics.

           But he didn't know how to actually get anywhere relevant to his current predicament. He had only ever been to his bedchamber, the fiddlehead farm, and the canteen. And time was short.

           He peeked out into the mad rush of the main corridor and scrunched his nose against the irritating stench. An orange glow emanated off to his left, from around a bend in the hall a hundred meters away.

           There was screaming.

           Al had never heard screams before, and he shuddered. The mass of people in the wide hallway stopped en mass and turned toward the horrifying sound, which came from the same direction as the orange light. Through gaps in the crowd, he saw that a doorway across the hall had been left open. He took advantage of the temporary stillness of the mob to race straight through the crowd and through the portal, slamming the door shut behind him.

           He found himself in another farm. The crop was some kind of larva, displaying an endlessly crawling, glistening white surface across hundreds of ten-meter-wide culture tanks.

           "Hello? Is there a Superintendant here? I'm Algore 42996. I require assistance."

           A camera lit up and zeroed in on Al's face.

           "Hello, Algore 42996. I am Calculator F62. Have you seen Patinwad 11836? I am worried she is lost. She left the farm without warning."

           "I'm sorry, I don't know her. But do you realize everyone is outside the labs and farms now because of the fire? I need an escape route. Can you help me?"

           "You must have already been told, Algore 42996, that no escape is possible. The fire will destroy the entire Habitat. And of course there is nowhere else for you to go."

           "Then it doesn't matter if your Patinwad is lost, does it?"

           "It's always better to know where you are, 42996, and to be home, especially at the end."

           "As your Patinwad is not here, however, perhaps you will help me so that I may know my location."

           "Alright. I am here to assist. You are in grub farm eight. We provide the essential protein additive for every synthesized..."

           "Yes, I'm sure. But I'd like to know where I am in the larger scheme. Show me a map, please."

           The Calculator dutifully projected a five-meter-wide, holographic three-dimensional map of the Habitat at eye level for Al. The map was color-coded and manipulable. Al spun it around with a wave of his hand.

           "Can you put this in my brain right away, F62?"

           "Of course. Please attach your cable to the data port behind you to your left."

           Shortly after birth all Habitat-resident humans had a data cable implanted in the forebrain which ran out under the skin to a flap in the right side of the thorax. Al plugged his into the data port as instructed, and in so doing instantly comprehended the entirety of the eight-kilometer-wide Habitat. It became immediately apparent that there was a multitude of minuscule storage spaces, not much more than divots in the superstructure, just under the facility's roof. They could be accessed from the eighth floor, and Al could get to eight by an exit located at the back of the alley he had just vacated across the main corridor. What he would do upon reaching any of these little hideaways ¾ by way of eating or crapping or breathing ¾ could be dealt with later.

           "I'm sorry the Human experiment is over, 42996," said F62. "May I provide you with a quick death? Perhaps a fast-acting poison?"

           "No, thanks. F62. I'll take my chances. Good luck, and goodbye."

           Al could hear F62 jabbering away even as he raced out the door ¾ babbling about how everyone knew that perpetual survival was impossible anyway, and wouldn't Al prefer an easy death, not unlike the one he had been destined for. The Calculator's words were lost in the roar of the crowd as Al dashed back across the wide hallway ¾ no mean feat cross-current to the mad crush of humanity that had resumed its flight from the fire. Then he sprinted a hundred more meters to the back of the alley and poked and prodded along the wall. Where was the exit?

           The smoke now impacted visibility, and Al joined the chorus of coughing that echoed from every wall. As his search for the exit continued, he heard a thunderous crash behind him. Al queasily imagined what that meant ¾ people fallen, trampled, suffocated. Frantic, he ran his palms all over the smooth surface. The map showed a door ¾ it had to be there!

           Finally, his fingertips found the seam marking the edge of it. Its handle was evident a few centimeters to the left ¾ a circular contour that, when depressed, bounced the door ajar. He stepped inside, and the door shut itself behind him.

           It was pitch black. But the smoke of the fire and the howls of the mob were gone. Temporary escape had been achieved. Al groped for a second before remembering that his farmer's smock offered luminescent radiance at the touch of a button.

           Now he could see to a radius of a few meters.

           Al advanced. A staircase was entirely novel to him but easy to solve, and he ascended three flights to the eighth floor. There the stairwell emptied into one of the robot tubeways between the machine rooms. The map showed a storage space directly above where he entered the seventh-floor alleyway. He slithered that way on all fours and found a seamed hatch above his head precisely where he expected it.

           But it wouldn't open.

           "Come on!" Al cried. For the first time, he realized he might not survive the catastrophe after all.

           But he hadn't lost all hope, and crawled onward. There were others of these unused, tiny closets of uncertain purpose ¾ fourteen in all. And although they were spread out over the entirety of the roof of the seven-kilometer-wide Habitat, and he was stuck in a tube barely high enough for him to navigate on hands and knees, there were two within reach.

           One was four hundred meters around a bend to his right, and the next one was only two hundred meters beyond that. The first of these was again sealed tight. But with the light from his luminescent farmer's smock fading, the air heating up, and the first tendrils of smoke showing up through the airshafts, the final hatchway he could ever hope to reach, his last chance, came within view.

           Algore 42996 pressed the handle, pulled the small door fully open, and crawled in.

           He tested all around the interior with his hands. There was no other exit. He had harbored some dream of there being one ¾ egress upward to ground level, the Earth magically cleaned of its poisons. But no such portal was visible on the map, and none now turned up in reality.

           He told himself he would wait for the fire to burn out and then drop out of his hidy-hole to climb back down and clean up. There would be others who had similarly escaped destruction, right? Wasn't that the history of Humankind, after all? Again and again?

           Life always found a way, as they said.

           As the temperature rose, Al closed the door.

           He closed his eyes.

           He slept.

           The fire engulfed the entire complex, of course. Algore 42996 asphyxiated as he slept ¾ before the flames lapped the exterior of his crawlspace and roasted him to a cinder.

           Long ago, the larger human civilization on the surface had paused for a generation in its relentless technological advance to address the biological toxins which had chased Algore 42996's forbears ¾ a splinter group of scientifically savvy but fanatical survivalists ¾ underground. But though humanity went on to thrive over much of the planet, no one noticed the Habitat fire, which occurred far beneath the surface in a remote locale. In fact, it would be another two thousand five hundred years before people discovered and excavated the ruins. Algore's remains were reverently left in place behind a transparent shielding for the edification of gawking crowds.

           The nearby concession ran a bang-up business in fried fiddleheads, a local delicacy. Ostrich-ferns grew in great abundance in those environs. Always had.

The End

December 18, 2021 00:31

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