Monday, March 21, 2011

A Science Fiction Short Story

Here's a sci-fi short story.


written by
Alan Green

Part I

It was dark.

Sleep Cycle. Bugsy's section, Alpha 1, was blacked out. No electricity was allocated for lights with the exception of ten minutes Personal Illumination Time, affectionately called PIT. Bugsy's compartment, however, was not completely dark. It never was. The blinking red LED indicated the door was locked. The green-orange light shining through a dirty plastic cover informed the Occupant CO2 levels were within an acceptable range. The tiny blue light floating in blackness meant the ventilation system (VENT SYS) was working properly.

Bugsy had extra Light Ration, as did the others assigned to the ICT, (Insect Clearing Team aka Bug Zappers, Beetle Burners, and Roach Rippers). It was one of the perks, but he was in no mood to use it. Staring into darkness was soothing. It made it easier for him to pretend he was in another place, another time.

The constant thrumming helped lull his senses as well. The sound was produced by giant rotating blades of the VENT SYS which, along with a series of pumping stations, pulled air down from the surface, circulating it to every Occupant. It was the incessant sha-shumm-da sha-shumm-da that reverberated everywhere. It was known as The Heartbeat.

Bugsy's facility, US-UHHF-1702 (United States - Underground Human Habitation Facility - Number 1702), officially known as New South Chicago but called 'The Burrow' by most, was one of the last subterranean living facilities constructed before the Migration Project ended in 2325.

The Burrow was a vertically oriented cylinder, a hundred yards in diameter, extending one hundred and fifty levels into the Earth. As such, elevators were the favored mode of transport, stairways being utilized only for trips of one or two levels. Since there was no day or night the rigmarole of activity never diminished. A sudden high-pitched whir of a passing elevator would interrupt conversations, streams of consciousness, or tenuous slumber, then just as suddenly its screeching would fade and The Heartbeat, the backdrop to all goings on, would return.

It was a bubbling muffled complex compacted cacophonous cottony-soft clangor comprised of a thousand distant frenzied yelps and whispers, a million stomping footfalls, endless door slams, non-stop gear turnings, ceaseless equipment chugs, continual pipe rattlings, and the perpetual hum of surging electricity. On occasion, even a minor earthquake would add to the rumble. It was the facility's audible fingerprint -- the first thing known upon waking, and the last thing known before sleep.

Bugsy preferred it. Liked it better than music. The persistent dull thudding would press on his mind creating a pleasant sort of senselessness in which directed thought subsided, allowing cherished apparitions the space to roam. It was an aural narcotic that created a portal into the past. Once the drug wove itself into Bugsy's mind, facility noises changed into beautiful singing tones. Sounds from a life on the surface. A life before the Earth was scorched by UV storms, before ice caps melted, before the desolation of Z-Virus, before nuclear accidents and attacks, before strange jungles of tall purple and blue plants teeming with hordes of giant insects replaced wheat fields, city parks, and forests. A life that now only existed in the interstices of memory.

Once he managed to quiet his mind and catch hold of the elusive delirium, the squeal of an elevator would mold itself into his daughter's voice calling, urging him to hurry to the playground. The blare of a fire alarm would transfigure itself into his wife's gentle sweet voice announcing dinner. Random clangs and thuds were the happy barks of the family's dog. In this altered state even smells changed. Foul air became the fresh scent of approaching spring rain.

For Bugsy it held more allure than other diversions. Bars and clubs on the lower levels were lurid and depressing. He wasn't much of a drinker and snorting grunge left him with splitting headaches. He much preferred spending down time in his Living Unit, the lights off, staring into darkness, reliving a life bygone.

Tonight, though, he found no solace in excursions of the imagination. He lay in his bunk wide awake, waiting for the alarm, listening to The Heartbeat, breathing thick air, feeling droplets of condensation gather on the hairs of his nostrils. He worried about the work that had to be done. Killing bugs. A nasty job but one that came with advantages. Bugsy couldn't complain about those.

One of the perks was a Living Unit at the top of the facility. Section Alpha. A desirable thing because, simply, it was closer to the surface and, therefore, the air was better. Despite that, the air was still heavy and moist and resisted being drawn into the body. Bugsy found it uncomfortable at times, but was glad he wasn't on a lower level.

In some facilities, the first ones built, the lowest levels had such poor air circulation that deaths were common. Design was revised and new facilities boasted better ventilation and utilized basements only for storage and machinery. Other measures were taken to guard against O2-related mishaps. Each Living Unit was equipped with a small oxygen tank in the event of VENT SYS failure. However, tanks leaked over time and were often empty when needed. Automated sensors were installed to detect high levels of CO2 (as well as low levels of oxygen). However, most of these failed after a few years and were never replaced or repaired due to the expense. While there was a certain amount of protest, facility life is not, strictly speaking, democratic and CA (Central Administration) determined that Vent Teams, which they pointed out, were highly trained in both VENT SYS repair and first aid, offered an adequate response. The need for sensors ceased to be a subject for debate. Vent Teams were posted on every third or fourth level, however they were notoriously slow, sometimes taking ten or fifteen minutes to get to an affected area once the alarm was sounded, the lag being worse when the local elevator was out of order. These factors conspired to make survival of a VENT SYS failure unlikely and the death rate from hypoxia continued to be high, even in the newest facilities.

The signs and symptoms of hypoxia progress in an orderly fashion. First, there is headache, sometimes nausea, an inability to concentrate, then shortness of breath and, often, a sort of cheap high caused by too little oxygen in the brain. Many of these indications were things most Occupants lived with much of the time, hence were usually ignored. Next, the victim becomes sleepy. In day-to-day facility life, drowsiness is an affliction of epidemic proportion and generally goes unnoticed, so, as a symptom is of value only in the most pedantic sense. Next, if no action was taken, the victim fell asleep and his or her skin turned blue. What happened next depended on the amount of time it took for a Vent Team to get to the scene. If they arrived in, say, five minutes, the victim might well be revived. If it took ten minutes or more the victim would be discovered unconscious and taken to the nearest Med Level where, generally, they would lapse into a coma. If discovered dead, they would be taken to the morgue and prepped for disposal.

During the Surface Era, a coma was preferable, at least preferable to dying, as appropriate medical care was widely available, and with a small measure of luck a comatose patient might recover. In the Subterranean Era Med Teams lacked the resources for care of comatose patients. The few doctors a facility was lucky to have were perpetually overworked. Around-the-clock treatment of a comatose patient could last for weeks or even months and the rate of survival was very low. In most cases, if a patient did manage to emerge from this state he or she could no longer contribute any useful function.

Considering all the factors it was deemed that any comatose Occupant, whether their condition was due to hypoxia, alcohol abuse, getting beat up, or snorting grunge or grime or whatever concoction was going around, would be taken to the surface by a Disposal Team and left behind, alive though unconscious. What happened next depended on the current Weather Cycle. If dust hurricanes prevailed, the body would be blown away by a wall of wind thick with pebbles and dirt, tossed and rolled for miles until the parts were no longer congruous. The remaining bits would be pushed and scraped until everything, including bone, was ground into dust, becoming one with the hurricane. In a Growth Cycle, the body would be left in the jungles of neon colored plants where giant bugs would find them. After a day or two nothing would be left. In a Burn Cycle the body would be taken some distance from the facility entrance and left to fry in UV radiation. With the same result.

Keeping a cadaver within the Facility for more than a few days was impractical. Neither electricity nor refrigerant needed for storage could be diverted. Cremation was not viable as no Facility could afford to allocate the resources necessary. Conventional burial was too risky. A Burial Team on the surface might become disoriented in a dust storm and end up wandering aimlessly in the wrong direction until their O2 supply ran out. Or, if particularly unlucky, they might be surrounded by a hunting expedition of bugs.

Even if the body was successfully interred, a marble headstone would be worn smooth by the first windstorm. It was true that fortified steel could withstand a hundred years of blowing dust and sand, but this material was in high demand and far too precious to be squandered on grave markers, especially considering that, without a Surface Suit, no one would dare venture topside to read such a marker until the next period of Climate Stabilization, which was not expected, even by the most optimistic climatologists, for at least a thousand years.

It was currently Growth Cycle. A slow giant storm akin to a cyclone (except without high winds) was centered over Kansas, turning slowly counter-clockwise, making a complete revolution once a week, churning warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, distributing rain to the entire central United States.

The formation, like all new weather patterns, was obstinate. It lingered, hovering stationary over the same spot on the globe for several weeks, a phenomenon previously known to occur only on a few distant planets and large moons. It would rain most nights, all night, and be very warm most days. The sun was barely visible in the dirty haze that had become the sky. In fact, the sun and sky appeared fused into one thing, orange in the brightest part, green toward the horizons, and a sickly grayed-down mauve at the edges, even at high noon.

In locations where there wasn't Growth Cycle, it was Burn Cycle. Ultraviolet radiation bombarded the surface of the Earth, and fire swirled for days or weeks. When there was nothing left to burn the soil baked, and anything that intended to survive had to burrow deep. The windstorms created by Burn Cycle would, in turn, lead to the pebble hurricanes of Dust Cycle in which churned up smoke and ash was carried around the planet. This haze of organic material would collide with a cyclone and mix with the moisture there. The resulting rains would fertilize soil already rich with the remains of insects and plants which had perished in the last Burn Cycle the region had suffered, and once again, Growth Cycle would begin.

The ground was richer than anything ever known and weird life sprung up from it with frightening speed. A brilliantly colored alien jungle could grow a hundred feet, laterally as well as vertically, within a day or two. These new plants were mutations. Their seeds, carried by winds for thousands of miles, were exposed to radiation both from space that found its way through weakened strata of atmospheric defense, and nuclear meltdowns that spewed smoke around the clock. Most species died, but some survived to become rooted abominations.

Beneath unsightly colored broad leaves, in gloomy shade, were giant mushrooms, mostly poisonous. Under the mushrooms was yellow and brown moss and beneath that a layer of viscous clay -- the waste products of the ecosystem.

Insects occupied every level of the jungle and enjoyed eating the plants. Over great periods of time a tit-for-tat battle of adaptation ensued. The plants created defenses. Pollen became caustic. Skin grew as tough as leather and in some cases was like tree bark. Juices were corrosive. Insects made counter moves, growing steely sharp mandibles that sliced through thick outer layers, and mouth parts which were immune to toxic liquor.

As time went on, bugs began eating not only plants but each other. So, further adaptations were needed. Shells grew thick. Venom was concocted which blinded, made the blood boil, or paralyzed the victim so it could be devoured at leisure. The warfare continued and only the most grotesque, queer, and bizarre prevailed.

Insects and plants were all that could acclimate quickly enough to the violent new weather patterns and onslaught of radiation. No higher forms of life, birds for instance, existed though there were rumors of humans who dwelled in caves and suffered from a strange malady.

The beetles were the worst. Some were the size of a car battery. Many were larger, as big as a medium sized dog. Territorial and aggressive, they represented the greatest threat to people who went topside. A large beetle, if disturbed, could chew through a surface suit in seconds, through a leg bone in a minute or two. They always traveled alone.

The small beetles, about the width of a deck of cards, were just as voracious and moved in groups as large as a dozen. Some beetles were tiny, barely visible, traveled in swarms of thousands or millions and, if inhaled, would eat away at the lungs. All were to be avoided.

Leaving a body in such an environment to be consumed by weather or insects was perhaps a barbaric practice by Surface Era standards. However, this was the Subterranean Era. What Surface Disposal lacked in humaneness it made up for in efficient utilitarianism, a commodity highly valued by the Doctrine of Facility Life. So, despite the severe nature, it remained the only practical method to process the deceased.

Even the smallest Facility was home to half a million people and, with that many, there were several deaths each day. The last Disposal Team, coming back from topside, reported a concentration of bugs, mostly large beetles, on the northwest ventilation intake grill. Currently, their report read, the bugs blocked about thirty percent of one vent. Left unchecked there would be total blockage within a week.

With the latest outbreak of pneumonia, brought on by an especially virulent new strain of Toxo-influenza, the death rate had quadrupled and the bugs had doubled in numbers, size and shell thickness. All of which made it more dangerous for one man to attempt to clear them. Going topside alone was never a good idea, but with the crawler population at a peak, there was a better than average chance of attack. While the bug population had increased, the number of bug zappers assigned to Northwest VIS (Ventilation Intake Sector) remained the same. One. Bugsy. That was why he lay awake in his bunk staring into darkness. Sleep always eluded Bugsy the night before a bug bake.

The fluorescent main light stuttered to life. The sight was never different. The same exposed pipes, video monitor, stainless steel mirror above a dirty sink, computer and work area, dents and scratches where they always had been. A soft feminine voice announces, 'The time is six a.m. You are scheduled to zap bugs this morn'-- 'Alarm off,' Bugsy says, stopping the synth-voice. He sits up with a groan, massages the back of his neck. There was time for a cup of coffee and maybe a donut before going topside. He takes a shower, gets dressed, unlocks the door and leaves.

Part II will be posted soon

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