Face to face with human creation

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The story of robinson crusoe of the future. Simon, a systems engineer at a zoo on a space station, finds himself face to face with the amazing nature of a man-made preserve.

Simon Richer had been working in the park’s vital systems maintenance service for three years. He still wasn’t sure if he liked the job, but you didn’t have much choice in Sky-city-32. Either you worked in the park or you departed for the quicksilver mines; not an exciting alternative. At the end of the day, the park was better. The job was hardly the most rewarding but it caused far less health concerns than the tunnels on the opposite side of the planet. You were quite safe here – as long as you strictly followed the safety regulations. Simon had never had any problem with that. He’d realized this simple truth earlier, back on the Centuria-3 station. His partner, Josef Willy, got sucked into an open air lock, having put too much trust in his magnetic boots’ power. Of course, space station air locks didn’t open frequently; that was just a coincidence.

Simon knew his way around automation systems and was immediately hired as a senior technician. It was a busy job. In one shift, he often had to visit up to seven blocks. Each enclosed thousands hectares of flora and fauna, carefully collected by biologists and botanists on different planets. Every morning Simon would board a small magnet track wagon and reach the sluice gate of the first block – the savanna. There he would change to a magnet car and move on. The car was well-protected, fast, sturdy and tech-savvy, so getting around wasn’t much of a challenge. Having reached his destination, Simon would unfold computer-controlled obscuration screens to protect himself from curious creatures. Then he would set to work.

The park had opened thirty years before – Sky-city-32 lived by Earth’s time standards. Over time, its popularity had gone far beyond the Virgo constellation. As big as a city, it was spread out over the sunny side of the planet. From the orbit it resembled huge bubbles clinging to the planet’s surface like boils. Its domes – blocks made of transparent material – were crisscrossed by electromagnetic tracks, the “lining”. Wagons with curious tourists were sliding over them. In some blocks the “lining” drooped down to tens of metres from the ground, but most of it was hundreds of metres higher. Simon would often watch the wagons come and go, while sitting under the phianel trees from planet Koleo or lying on the living sands of Torneo beaches. Every time it would cross his mind how much those minions of fortune were missing up there, under the dome, although, admittedly, there was no shortage of exciting sights from above.

The world inside the blocks was not controlled or manipulated in any way. All the humans did was support the main systems: ventilation, lighting, seasons regulator, time of day automation. The nature did all the rest. Simon could have enjoyed this job, had he not been raised on Golphea. Golphea was a stony planet with no plants or animals. It had made him detached from everything to do with wildlife. To him, the park was just a number of systems in need of maintenance and adjustment. Everything else was for scientists and tourists.

On 23 November 2437, Simon had another shift. In Sky-city-32 morning came when Spica – the brightest star in the constellation – rose over the horizon. Simon’s shift would always start a bit earlier; he had to be inside the car before first light. That part of the way would take him forty-seven minutes starting from bed. That day he got up, put on his clothes and went through his morning routine; getting ready fast was a useful skill left from Centuria-3. Then he left his compartment. At 03.19 he arrived at the sluice gate of the first block. By 03.25 he was sitting in the car cabin. He’d been in bad spirits since he’d woken up. Nightmares were another piece of baggage from Centuria-3. Besides, the temperature had dropped lower than usual overnight. In brief, the day wasn’t starting well.

Driving past the savanna, Simon could see sleeping lions. Down the road a herd of buffalos was lazily roaming around a waterhole, waiting for the automatic time of day regulator to ignite the sun over the horizon. Nothing out of the ordinary. Further on, the track went through a hyena clan’s territory. The animals were baring their teeth at each other savagely. As always, they paid no attention to the car – a familiar sight since the day they’d been born. From there Simon drove to the Belevial forests through the snows of Jötunhelm and the jungles of Earth and Carrock. He didn’t expect the day’s work to be hard. He just had to check the temperature sensors that had been sending erratic data lately.

At 04.45 Simon stopped near the first sensor, attached to a Belevial sequoia trunk, and unfolded the obscuration screen. At 05.12 the car systems died.

Simon didn’t immediately realize the gravity of his situation. Nothing of that sort was even mentioned in his instructions, as no one had conceived it possible. The car’s computers had switched off completely; it was dead. For some time, Simon was trying to bring the equipment back to life, not letting his bafflement get the best of him. Every attempt resulted in more sighs of disappointment. Meanwhile morning turned into day. That meant the dusk natural for Belevial. The forest came alive with rustling; the tree crowns started to turn towards the artificial sun hidden in a dense layer of synthetic clouds. The fine axis of the “lining” was barely visible behind them.

The technician checked the radio connection. The beacons located in each block were supposed to retransmit his signal to the operator station, but the dense clouds and leaves didn’t let it through.

The amplifiers were placed high at the “lining” level, and his own amplifier was part of the car’s navigation system. The portable intercom let out nothing but hissing noises. Still unaware of the situation’s gravity, Simon checked his toolkit: magnet nippers, a screwdriver, a knife, a few metres of cable, a multi-purpose measuring device, a pair of kevlar gloves, a dielectric cutter and a semiconductor set. A standard technician’s kit, no more than that. After some rummaging in the trunk, he managed to find a cape-tent (Simon had never understood its purpose, what with the car’s screen protecting him from rain and extreme temperatures), a dry ration pack and a small first-aid kit. Inside were bandages, painkillers, a few antidotes; he’d never opened it in all his time on the job. Centuria-3 had taught Simon not to waste time. He quickly packed everything useful in a travel bag (why had that been in the car?!) and tried to evaluate the situation. That was when the horror of his plight caught up with him: no communication, no equipment, wildlife all around and no one but himself to depend on.

After being hired, he had received training on the Aureole-1 station and attended a course on different blocks’ nature. Now he was trying to remember what was known about Belevial wildlife. His memory provided images of predatory reptiles, huge twenty-legged spiders and tens of metres long slugs. Belevial wasn’t a hospitable planet.

To make things worse, the sluice gate would only open for cars. There were no other ways of moving between the blocks, unless you were willing to climb up to the dome and plunge into an airshaft. No, that was pure fantasy; the magnetic field would have pushed him out even if he’d managed to rise above the clouds. His only chance was signaling to people who would soon start sliding over the “lining”. Then someone would have to send a new car after him.

Centuria-3 had taught him not to succumb to panic. On the space station, there was no room for fear. Once he’d seen a man paralyzed by the sight of x-cockroaches invading the garbage pit. He ended up squished by a press. If not for the fear, he would have made it to the other side. Another example was technician Stan Perry who had burned in the blast furnace. He’d been standing near a cyclic grinder till the last, unable to make himself duck between its cogwheels.

Rustling of the huge sequoia leaves pushed Simon to action. He left the broken car and set out. Belevial’s ground was as treacherous as anything else on this planet. One wrong step, and you could find yourself sucked into a hole inhabited by Belevial ants. They laid eggs in all of the victim’s orifices and were rumored to have destroyed the first Belevial colony. The technician was purposefully stepping on the roots, trying to tread lightly and silently. He had to be doubly cautious now that the most dreadful creatures were crawling out to the surface.

Centuria-3 was unforgiving for mistakes. Many nights Simon would dream of his comrades falling into the abysses of the station’s power plants or losing their limbs to propeller blades of air circulation systems. Apart from the task in hand, the outcome of their work depended on returning safely into the living module.

Suddenly, there was hissing somewhere ahead, then a drawn out squeak. Some creature blocked his way. What creature? Simon had no desire to check. Any creature in this vile block was deadly. Even the smallest ones could get under your clothes, find a soft spot and gnaw their way through your body. There had been an accident in the time of the first Belevial colonies mainly consisting of prisoners. A mason crew had been working in a ravine. One of the workers pierced a hole into a karmaeaters’ tunnel. The long creatures resembling centipedes from the Earth did away with the whole crew within minutes.

Simon made a turn to walk around the creature from the west, but that plan failed because of a swamp. He went in the opposite direction, but the way was barred by a fallen trunk with signs of ants’ presence.  He had no choice but to return to his initial route.

You had to be tenacious – Centuria-3 had been fast to get that across. The station’s death-roll was updated constantly, especially at the time of its construction. Most of the victims died of asphyxia, temperatures or hypoxia because they had refused to soldier on. The most persistent, willing to fight tooth and nail for their lives without counting on miracles – those were the ones who returned from shifts. Simon was one of them.

The creature stayed put for hours. Simon was only able to move past the accursed area at nightfall, when the Belevial forest got filled with tantalizing fireflies – swarms of deadly wasps that looked beautiful from the “lining”. Simon reached a small clearing and tried to find his bearings. Recalling the block map, he figured he had to walk north. There had to be a plain – a broad field planted with Belevial roses, harmless as long as you didn’t touch their thorns. Of course, the poison was lethal for humans – another peril that had exacted its toll on Belevial colonists. Right above the plain was the “lining”, quite low in that area. There was a chance to get noticed.

The rest of the way to the plain was surprisingly uneventful. Simon only encountered a Belevial man-eating beetle (a funny story involving those had once happened on Belevial). Luckily, it wasn’t interested in the human. Night fell – the Belevial night, scantily lit by artificial stars on the dome. The wagons were few at this time, the season of night tours in the park not having started. Simon found a small patch of ground, lay down and tried to rest while still remaining vigilant. He didn’t unpack the dry ration, wary of the unwelcome guests who could turn up at the smell.

The restless night ended as the stars began to fade and the cloud generators slowly started to fill the dome with fog. By now, they surely had to notice his absence at the centre and probably even organize the search. Maybe he should have stayed near his car?

Centuria-3 had taught him not to stay put. Those who did would always get hurt: hit by machines, sucked into choppers, burned in heating boilers. Sitting around was not an option; motionless meant dead.

Simon pricked up his ears. Wasp buzzing was dying down in the distance. A slug was slurping lazily near the forest. Tree crowns were rustling quietly. He straightened up cautiously and looked around. Not far away, in about fifty metres, was a large rock. If he climbed it, he would have better chances of signaling to the “lining”. All he had to do was reach it.

Trying to be quiet, avoiding the flowers’ thorns, he approached the rock. Now he needed to wait for the right moment. Climbing onto the rock seemed very dangerous; Belevial flies could notice prey from one kilometre away and swarm all over it in a second. They featured in another tragic story of the planet’s colonization. A few excruciatingly long hours later, he heard the sound of the sluice gate opening. The first wagon surged up to the dome. When it was right above him, Simon jumped onto the rock and started to wave his hands, signaling SOS. The “lining” drooped so low here that he was able to see the tourists’ faces.

The wagon paused above Simon. He could see people snuggling up to the panoramic window’s glass, pointing their fingers at him, talking and laughing. In a few minutes, the wagon moved on, to another burst of unanimous laughter. A few kilometres to the west, it paused again, then slid past the sluice gate. Now he just had to wait for the rescue to be organized.

Simon got down from the rock. The passengers’ reaction alarmed him, but he didn’t make much of it. After all, they were not the park employees. All he had to do now was find somewhere safe and wait for help. He decided it was a good idea to stay near the rock. Evening was far away, and another wagon had to appear soon.

A quarter-hour later, the next group of tourists paused above the technician in distress. Once again he signaled emergency – only to get the same reaction from the passengers. This was starting to irk him. Simon reckoned it would take the tourists about half an hour to convey his plight to the park services – that is, if they didn’t contact dispatchers using internal communication. Rescue workers had to arrive at the Belevial block forty minutes after being alerted.

But the help didn’t come – not in an hour, not in two hours. The wagons came and went, people stared indifferently at the man on the rock. Soon the day started to turn towards evening, the fog under the dome clearing slowly. The second night in the block seemed colder than the first, tiredness and constant nervous tension beginning to take toll. Simon wrapped himself in the cape-tent and decided to leave the plain. The dry ration was a tempting weight in his bag, but the man didn’t dare eat.

Having reached the forest clearing, Simon lay down at the roots of a huge tree and tried to sleep. He was going to need his strength for the next day. What would he do if help didn’t arrive? Return to the car and try to fix the broken computer? Go to the rock once again? Simon fell into uneasy sleep. In a few hours, leaves rustling woke him up. Careful to avoid sudden movements, he turned his head to the source of the sound. A huge slug was wriggling out to the surface near him. Simon could feel the monster’s stench. Its long slimy body was moving in jerks around the tree, congenitally blind eyes dimly lit by small fluorescent bulbs on its numerous tentacles. Its mouth with several rows of teeth went ajar when the creature smelled the human.

The technician groped for the knife under his shirt and started to get away slowly. The slug wouldn’t be able to climb high up a tree. Simon saw this as his chance to escape. Having retreated to what he deemed a sufficient distance, he sprang up and darted behind a tree. The creature grunted and rushed after him seconds later. Then another sudden movement caused another burst of rage. Navigating by sound, the slug was only a touch behind its prey. Its small brain was unable to predict the further actions of the human, the first one it had ever faced.

Simon was holding his knife at the ready, trying to keep track of his foe’s movements. This deadly cat-and-mouse game was hard to play in the dimness of the Belevial forest. Eventually, one of them was bound to make a mistake. In another dive behind a tree, Simon failed to notice a bulging root and sprawled on the ground. In a blink of an eye, the slug pounced at the sound and caught his leg with its dreadful chops. Simon felt the slimy mouth suck his limb into the huge jaws’ grinders. Horror struck him. No panicking! No panicking! The man tried to stab the creature, but missed. Breaking a few bones, the slug turned him over by the leg. Simon’s cry of pain was drowned in dry leaves. The slug continued to suck him in, smacking. Another attempt to stab it failed, the slug being out of reach. The man gathered all of his strength and used his free leg to kick the creature in the jaws, which made it pause for a second. The next blow didn’t have the same effect; it looked as if the slug hardly felt any resistance.

Simon’s consciousness started to blur from pain and fear. His exhausted body refused to continue the fight against the alien foe. Through the fog in his eyes, he suddenly saw three huge spider-like creatures jump at the slug. Engrossed in the hunt, the monster had apparently lost its caution and ventured into other nocturnal predators’ territory. A fight ensued. The enemy opened its jaws and spat out the human’s limb, turning its lump of a head to the attackers. Another blast of pain stirred Simon up. The terrible battle scene playing out so close by kicked him into action. With his last bit of strength, he started to crawl away through the dark forest. He lasted for a few tens of metres and then blacked out.

It was the rain that brought him round. Heavy drops, normal for Belevial, were falling to the ground, quickly flooding its surface. Runlets started to form and turn into streams. The man tried to stand up, but the broken leg gave way treacherously, forcing him to cry out. No one could hear it, the rain muffling all other noises. Simon crawled under a burdock leaf and fortified himself with the sodden dry ration. His body responded with a grateful surge of energy, his head cleared. He wrapped himself in the cape-tent and tried to evaluate the situation. Some idea, some way of escape was flickering in his mind without him being able to articulate it. There seemed to be an obvious way out. And then it dawned on him. He remembered Belevial monsoon seasons with their enormous rainfall amounts. The rain would have long flooded the whole block if not for the water disposal system! Apart from drainage ditches, there were three drain valves in the lowlands. If he got into one of them, he would end up in a drainage collector and signal to the operator station from there!

Overcoming his pain, he reached the closest collector in a few hours. Disguised as a ravine, it dipped several metres down. Simon started to climb down carefully, showered with water and mud. Halfway down, the broken leg failed him. He lost his grip and fell. The last thing he remembered was the whirlpool sucking him into the collector.

He came to himself in the medical campus. The holographic clock in the corner of the room was showing November 26, 18:34. His whole body was aching, leg pulsing with pain, eyes sore from the pale light. He reached the nurse call button, and a young woman walked into the room.

“Stay down, stay down! You can’t make any abrupt movements!”

“How did I get here?” Simon half sat up on his bunk. His body responded with dull ache.

“A technical crew picked you up. There was a clog alarm in the third collector of the block 21. That turned out to be you. I’ve been instructed to let you rest. Your recovery will take a few days. You were fatigued, and Belevial rose toxins were found in your blood, on top of that. You are lucky to be alive. That’s it, that’s it! No more questions! Rest!” The nurse checked the equipment data and walked away briskly.

Two days later, Simon was fully recovered. From the hospital room, he went directly to the emergency investigation committee session. By the time he entered the hall, everyone had already gathered. It immediately reminded him of a court session he’d once seen on screen. Colonel Ross, director Jonathan Whittaker and chief technician Philip Langdon were sitting round a big table. A small table for Simon was right across from them.

“Hello, Mr. Richer. Please, take a seat,” said the director.

“Mr. Richer, we have gathered here to investigate the circumstances of your getting into the third drainage collector of the block 21. Our experts have already examined the valve and made preliminary conclusions.” Colonel Ross showed him a small green folder. “Now we would like to hear your account of what happened.”

Simon recounted the whole story in one breath. Colonel Ross and director Whittakker asked numerous questions which he answered promptly and concisely. The session was closed after three hours, and its attendees started to leave. Behind the door Philip Langdon approached Simon and took him aside.

“Mr. Richer, I would like to offer you a sincere apology on behalf of our whole service. I didn’t tell you at the session lest it be recorded, but we had received no information about you from the tourists.”

“What do you mean?” Simon was genuinely surprised. “I signaled to so many people!”

“No information. Not a single message. I think they forgot all about you at the very next block. Those people didn’t give a damn about you. To them you were just a curious showpiece. I’m so sorry! Had you not got into the collector, we wouldn’t have been able to locate you”.

“But my car! You must have noticed that I hadn’t returned! That my car had broken down! Couldn’t you have sent help?”

“You see, Mr. Richer, there had been no similar accidents before. According to the internal regulations, routine work takes priority over accident response and investigation, unless the tourists’ lives and well-being are at risk. The dispatcher service didn’t even signal your absence. Obviously, we will revise the regulations, but that will take time. Let me offer you my sincere apologies once again!” Philip Langdon shook the technician’s hand and walked away down the corridor. Simon continued to stand, feeling like an insect. Apparently, his life was about as valuable as that.

Submitted: April 18, 2021

© Copyright 2022 igogosh. All rights reserved.

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