The Traveler - Part 1 of 3 [Sci-fi]
Algal vats shouldn't smell like feet.
Healthy blue-green algae has a refreshing, organic odor, like moss after a light rain. All the grow tanks are in clean rooms, workers wear HEPA ventilators and hazmat suits and pass through a denaturing spray not even extremophile bacteria can survive. The grow water is purified five times, and then passed through enough UV light to kill an elephant. In theory, the only living thing exposed to the grow rooms are the blue-green algae itself, and the pre-selected supportive bacteria infused into the nutrient wash.
"Then tell me what the fuck I'm looking at." Supervisor Crane held a gloved hand full of brown-orange mush. The acrid odor seeped past his HEPA filter and clung to his nostrils.
Thorne resisted the urge to shrug by sticking his own gloved hand into the puss colored melange. "I don't know, Mr. Crane. Something must have contaminated the batch."
"Is that your professional opinion?" Crane upturned his hand and flung the heap of organic bio-hazard back into the grow tank where it landed with a scatological plop. "Goddamn it, who the hell set up this grow?"
The hazmat suits were climate controlled, but Thorne began to sweat anyway. "It was Mr. Dyer and myself, Mr. Crane." Thoene lifted his own glove out of the muck and shook it off lightly as he continued, "well, Mr. Dyer helped in the beginning."
Even behind the thick layer of visor glass, Cranes incredulous eyebrows could be seen rising with aggression. "In the beginning? What does that mean, 'in the beginning'?"
Thorne swallowed hard. "Mr. Dyer has been out sick, sir, for almost a week now."
Crane's words seemed to jam up in his throat and he squeezed them out carefully, one by one. "You have been running this grow operation for the last week?"
"And, how many," Crane paused and glanced in apparent contemplation down at the floor for a long moment before returning to his thought. Thorne could not help but follow Crane's gaze, along, it seemed, with all the air in the room. At last Crane continued, "how many grows have you previously supervised?"
Thorne knew the answer to this question and considered lying, but then thought better of it, because he was sure Supervisor Crane also knew the answer. "None, sir."
Both men stood silently for a few seconds, during which time Thorne considered whether Crane expected Thorne to wait silently for his excoriation, or for Thorne to begin explaining himself. Thorne couldn't decide which option he preferred, and so he chose a poor middle ground. "None, sir."
This was the wrong choice. "If you have never supervised a grow operation before, Mr. Thorne," Crane's voice was beginning an inexorable crescendo and, having heard Crane's voice on other occasions reach its apex, Thorne cringed at the heights still left to traverse, "what in the en-tire fuck-ing world would convince you to take over the lar-gest, most important, seasonal grow of the entire fiscal, fuck-ing year?!"
Thorne enjoyed his job, and he liked Mr. Dyer a great deal. It was important work they did together, and Mr. Dyer was one of the best at it in the entire world. Dyer was an algal genius. When the grow tanks of other crops failed, Dyer was brought in to save them. When demand for calories rose suddenly, Dyer was brought in to eek out a few percentages more from a crop. He was the most experienced man in the farm, maybe on the entire East Coast. Dyer had never lost a grow, and Thorne was proud beyond words to be working directly under him.
But was he really willing to lose his job for the man?
"Sir, Mr. Dyer asked me not to tell you about the sick leave. Some kind of family emergency with his kid." The words spilled out of Thorne and he felt terrible immediately afterwards. He told himself that a man of Dyer's ability and reputation would never be fired, Algcon could never afford it. Still, he was ashamed of his weakness.
The inside of Crane's visor was covered in small flecks of spittle left over from his incensed outburst. The inability to wash it off was an immense frustration to Crane, but he did his best to pretend it wasn't there. His voice was calm and steady again. "Thorne, you're fired. You are to dump this grow, sweep and clear the room, and have your log chip on my desk by the end of the day."
Thorne felt the pronouncement as a physical blow to the chest. His knees began to buckle at the ramifications and, rather than force himself to remain standing, he gave into the impulse and knelt before his superior. "No Mr. Crane. Please Mr. Crane, you can't fire me, please. I have a family, Mr. Crane. This job, years of graduate school - there's nothing else out there for me - you know what its like."
Crane looked down at the kneeling man with disdain and then back into the maelstrom of undulating, rotten, totally useless calories. It wasn't an act of malice - in truth, Supervisor Crane liked Thorne. But the young man was exactly right: Crane did know what the world was like out there, and in that world, waste of this magnitude was simply unacceptable. "I'm sorry, Mr. Thorne." Crane said, and meant it.
Right then the dull whining of a distant alarm began to reverberate through the thick walls of the room, followed quickly by the loss of primary power. The lights shut down, as did the hum of the ventilation fans and the constant airy churning of the nutrient wash. For a moment, the room was pitched into blackness, before the blue emergency lights came on with a dull hum, along with the backup generators and the reassuring churn of the ventilation fans.
Thorne did not appear to notice, beside himself on the ground, while Crane sprung into action and headed for the door. He tried the handle, but it was locked. Then he pressed the call button on the emergency intercom and yelled into the microphone through his visor. "What in the hell is going on out there? What happened to the power?"
The metallic tinged voice of a woman came back over the speaker. "Sir, we've experienced some kind of emergency shutdown. We're trying to pinpoint the problem."
Crane slammed his finger into the call button again, "well figure it out quickly - and open the doors to grow 36, I need to get to operations."
There was a long buzz in response, along with the slightest hint of garbled words, spoken too quickly and quietly too understand. Crane looked into the speaker in search of clarity. "Can you hear me in there? Open the doors to grow 36!" Only static came back in answer, followed by a loud electric pop, and then silence.
Then there was just Crane, Thorne's quiet mewling, and the airy whisper of the ventilators.
Crane walked over to Thorne and heaved him to his feet. "Come on, we've got to get out of here and figure...." Crane was interrupted mid sentence by what felt like an explosion within the confines of the main farm warehouse. The room shook briefly, and almost immediately after the first sound died down, a second explosion rang through the facility, slightly louder than the first.
Crane's head swung around to face the noise, awash in confusion. The only potentially explosive components of the farm were the liquid oxygen and the fertilizer, but both were stored over a mil away to the South. The explosion had come from the North.
Another explosion, louder still. Crane's mind ran wild in search of an explanation. He quickly ran through every possible technical failure he could think of, but this scenario fit none of them.
Another explosion, even closer than the last, shook the floor.
A terrorist attack maybe? But how, and why? They were in the heart of the Northeastern federation, and there were far more lucrative and destructive targets for corporate terrorism than a fucking algae farm. Not to mention there hadn't been a terrorist attack in the Northeast in over two decades.
The next explosion felt quite loud, and very close. Crane could feel it reverberate in his guts and even Thorne seemed to be pulled out of his reverie by its force. But this explosion also had a different quality to it. It was immediately followed by an audible hiss.
The reality clicked into place - these weren't just explosions - something was blowing the pressure seals in the clean rooms leading down the main hallway, one after the other. Two foot thick steel doors, eight feet high. There was no technical glitch in the world that could explain that - nor was there any human being who could withstand the chaotic force of those ruptures.
Before Crane could consider what menace could survive such an approach, he was thrown violently into the far wall when the final explosion occurred in the hallway outside grow room 36. The kinetic force somehow overcame the negative pressure in the grow room and, rather than shooting them into the room, it sucked the airtight steel doors outward into the hallway. The sudden depressurization caused a significant explosive force, but most of the noise was the sound of monstrous stainless steel doors crumpling into ragged balls, like pieces of aluminum foil being crushed and tossed thoughtlessly over a shoulder.
Both men lost consciousness for a moment from the g-forces of their impact. Crane came to first. The blue emergency lights flickered in the almost entirely darkened room, and he struggled to orient himself in space. With great effort, Crane forced himself to stand. He could taste blood on his upper lip, and a ringing blared in his ears. He strained his eyes and could just make out before him a thin figure shrouded in steel dust and darkness.
Thorne came to moments later. He looked up just in time to see Crane rise half a foot off the ground and be torn cleanly in half, hazmat suit and all. The top half flew left, while the bottom half flew right, and through the red mist that lingered where Supervisor Crane had been a moment before, Thorne could now see the same shrouded figure, the joints of its raised hands illuminated by the flickering blue emergency lights.
"Where is Dyer?" Thorne understood the sandpaper voice to belong to the figure, though Thorne heard it from inside his head, beyond the deafening ringing in his ears.
"He's not here." Thorne said, or thought - he wasn't sure.
The dark figure slowly lowered one hand, and it disappeared from the blue glow and into total obscurity. The remaining hand opened wide and exposed its blue tinted palm with immense grace. "Where is Dyer?"
Thorne stared at the hand as a nameless terror rose in his throat. "I don't know. He's... he's sick."
"Where is Dyer?" The fingertips of the hand came together, with great care, and such delicacy, as though they were loosely grasping a single, invisible, over-ripe grape in mid-air.
Thorne could feel the slightest hint of pressure around his left eyeball. "I guess... I guess he's... he's gone home?"
The blue fingertips stood perfectly still for another second and then came together quickly, plucking the grape from the vine. Thorne's instincts instantly brought his gloved hands upwards in order to cup the crushed ruin that, a moment ago, had been his left eye, but his hazmat helmet blocked their way. So Thorne just groped helplessly at the glass, and screamed and screamed and screamed.