by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
At the edge of the New York City impact crater, where a glorious skyline had once climbed heavenwards, a well-groomed garden of non-indigenous flora spread far afield, interrupted only by an evenly spaced series of black rings. The bushes, trees, and a stunning variety of flowering plants were all outworld imports brought in to replace the native greenery that, along with Manhattan Island, had been destroyed by the first IFF.
It had been a less than auspicious introduction to the twenty-second century.
Now, some ninety years later, at the garden’s eastern edge lay an immense rectangle composed of interlocking burnished plates of armor-grade steel. Dozens of meters thick, in tight formation like vast legions of monstrous soldiers awaiting the order to march, they stretched for kilometers. Not a scenic view, but a gruff and joyless reminder of the former city, with only wind turbines and solar panels above ground to celebrate what had been a sprawling and vivacious skyline.
Dotting its periphery stood various gates. Leading down into the new city, some were narrow as doorways, for pedestrian and small vehicle traffic, while others lay a hundred meters wide. A vast interchange of roads and highways emerged from these various openings, scurrying off into the distance and, all around the busy hum of commerce and trade, bees could be heard buzzing their way into the hive and out again.
Once the Citizens there had recovered from the initial disaster, Centcom pledged that the skyscrapers would return, but inverted, tunneling deep into the earth to protect the population forever from future impact events. Tall towers became deep bunkers; the streets, tunnels; the rivers, pipelines; the blue sky, an elaborate system of artificial light offering a simulacrum of sunrise and sunset.
Not an ideal solution, but the best available, given the unpredictability of the IFFs and the environmental disaster they invariably left in passing. Still, the conversion from urban to subterranean life was difficult, and Centcom found itself obliged to make countless tweaks and adjustments to its original plans.
And problems, always problems. What was once commonplace was now a logistical nightmare: supplying potable water, air filtration and circulation, food distribution, waste disposal, and a million other basic needs. Yet the Citizens persevered, and the new city slowly flourished.
* * *
The head office of Ouroboros could be found in the deepest of the structures, where thousands of researchers and technicians devoted themselves to a single task: feeding the billion inhabitants of the North American Citizens’ Confederation. Since the destruction of traditional surface agriculture — brought about by the very unpredictability of the IFFs — this was easier said than done.
In a secure location at the bottommost level, a number of gentlemen in stiff suits sat at a long, v-shaped table. In the free space before them stood a man in a long white coat. At the shoulders, the coat bore delicately embroidered Ouroboros corporate icons, each depicting a black and green snake swallowing its tail, along with the corporate motto: “All the One.”
“Gentlemen,” said the man, “thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I know you’re all very busy, so I’ll begin.”
The lights dimmed to 50 percent, and a holographic image of Frank Williamson fizzed into shape, rotating slowly and steadily to give everyone a thorough view.
The man in the white coat — by name, Stevens — manipulated the virtual controls at his side, increasing resolution and enlarging the image to where only a bust of the original figure remained.
“The man you see here is Mr. Nick Flemel,” said Stevens. “Until two days ago, he was an employee of Ouroboros’s R&D Division.”
“Was?” echoed one of the gentlemen. “Quit or terminated?”
“Unknown in this case, sir, though presumably the former,” Stevens said. “The first day, he merely failed to show up for work. No one felt cause for alarm, as Mr. Flemel has a reputation of being — to put it kindly — unreliable. We simply deducted the missed hours from his pay. It had happened before.
“But, on the second day, when he again failed to report in, we ran a tracer on him, which indicated he was in his apartment. When we sent a security monitor to bring him in, no one was there. Instead, the monitor found something rather disturbing.”
Stevens reached into his side pocket, extracting a small plastic bag. In it was a golden microchip. At this, the gentlemen’s eyes filled with concern.
“His profile chip,” Stevens said. “It seems he dug it out of his forearm with an ordinary kitchen knife. A painful job, and conducted in great haste, given the copious amounts of blood on his dining table. He was very lucky he didn’t bleed to death. By now, maybe he has.”
A gentleman at the head of the table — clearly the eldest among them, his hair white and his faced wizened — gently raised a finger. Despite his age, he was surprisingly fit, his shoulders broad, his chest muscular, his arms and legs still robust. “You’re saying, then, that this Flemel has, with no warning, decided to end his relationship with Ouroboros Corporation, does not wish to be found, and has taken steps to ensure he can’t be tracked?”
Stevens nodded. “Yes, Director,” he said.
“Then am I to take it Ouroboros has been the victim of some instance of corporate espionage?”
“I was just getting to that,” said Stevens. He found the Director’s instincts impressive.
“Yes, sir. When word of Mr. Flemel’s profile chip reached the Security Directorate at Centcom, the Head of Security contacted me and requested a Level One inquiry of Flemel’s activities for the day prior to his disappearance. Now, for the past two years he has been a Tier 15 sanitation technician in the Ouroboros Shmeat Program, one of the larger departments within the R&D Division and the current flagship of our technological innovations.”
Another gentleman interrupted. “Shmeat?”
Stevens’ eyes betrayed traces of annoyance. Ouroboros ran an exhaustive and oftentimes baffling range of corporate initiatives, certainly, but any employee who hadn’t heard of its research in Shmeat was so far out of the loop that the best thing to do with him would be to shoot him and toss his carcass into the incinerator for heat. “Animal tissue, produced in vitro,” he said.
“Not exactly, sir,” Stevens said. “Artificial meat is actually a meat substitute, usually produced from vegetable protein such as soy or gluten. Shmeat is actual muscle tissue, harvested from cell cultures.”
The Director huffed impatiently. “Proceed, Stevens,” he said.
“Yes, Director. After a brief examination, we found that Mr. Flemel had taken an inordinate amount of time in cleaning out Microprocessor Substation No. 4, located here.” He tapped the virtual controls, bringing up a floor plan of the R&D Division. A pair of flashing red brackets highlighted the substation.
“Cleaning the No. 4 was part of Mr. Flemel’s regular duties, and he knew this area quite well. Better than most, as it turns out. Retracing his movements, we found an access portal beneath a particularly crucial data juncture.
“This portal, to our surprise, was one of the old style, requiring actual insertion of a data storage module. These days, such technology is used only in conjunction with outworlder visas and the like. Otherwise, it is considered obsolete. The sort of data security used at Ouroboros allows only air-gap data reproduction.
“Apparently, Mr. Flemel found a suitable interface module and used it to steal a significant number of files encapsulating our latest innovations in Shmeat production. Such data is, of course, proprietary to Ouroboros.”
“Significant? In what way?” the Director said, his brow furrowing in concern.
“Well, as you well know, Director,” Stevens said, “Ouroboros is in the final stages of perfecting a process that will take Shmeat production to a new and highly profitable level. It is the culmination of decades of research and experimentation.
“Under the former process, Shmeat had been difficult to produce, and far too expensive to make it commercially viable. Heretofore, we’ve settled on traditional technology, producing mainly synthetic meat, as I was explaining earlier.
“However, because the new process will make Shmeat production inexpensive and abundant, we’ll be able to wipe out our competitors by outproducing them and selling our product at a price they can’t possibly match.”
“Or, rather,” the Director replied, “we would have done so, had not Mr. Flemel run off with copies of the process, which he can now sell to the highest bidder.”
“Yes, sir,” said Stevens.
“In that case, give us an idea of what damage this Flemel has done.”
“Yes, sir. Mainly—”
“But try not to bore us with details.”
Once again, Stevens’ eyes reflected his annoyance. These corporate types, always posing questions but never wanting to hear the whole answer. To give less than the entire story always struck him as borderline lying.
“Mainly, sir, Shmeat begins with seed stock harvested from a living organism — say, a pig. A half dozen muscle cells will suffice. These are seeded into a collagen matrix and then bathed in a nutritious solution, at which point the cells are induced to divide. This is the basic formula for in vitro meat culture and has been available for over a hundred years.
“What makes our process unique is an innovation in the induction of cell division, which involves bombarding the cell/collagen matrix with a particle beam of quantum-dismembered deuterium. Since deuterium exists in abundant quantities in ordinary seawater, this makes the induction phase relatively inexpensive.”
“That’s as may be,” the old man said. “But you didn’t say the process employs ordinary deuterium. It was — what did you call it?”
“It is. Or, rather, it used to be. That’s part of what makes the process proprietary to Ouroboros. Here, perhaps this will help.” Stevens tapped his virtual controls and brought up a diagram illustrating the process.
“This is a basic overview of Shmeat production. Phase I begins with seeding the cell culture and preparing it for division induction. In Phase II, the cell culture is moved along a sterile environment and is pasted to an edible mesh which will hold the final product together — what we call cake.
“Midway through Phase II, deuterium bombardment of the cake begins — though the process is really too elaborate to describe here. Suffice it to say, it consists of the emission of waves having either spatial or temporal coherence, enhanced by—”
“English!” the Director grumbled.
“I mean it affects the deuterium in the desired way,” Stevens said. “However, because of the potential for energy discharge from the treated deuterium, this portion of Phase II is processed within a beryllium cylinder, ensuring that only quantum-dismembered deuterium emerges from the particle beam.
“At this point Phase III starts, in which the cultured cells begin to multiply at an astonishing rate. In IV and V, the cake is portioned, packaged, and readied for distribution. It’s a brilliant innovation, sir, absolutely nothing like it anywhere.”
“And this Flemel has copies of all the pertinent data to reproduce the process?”
“Yes, sir. That, and related data.”
“Well, sir, some rather curious findings of experiments conducted on the prototype as the technology was further refined.”
“Findings? Some particulars, if you please, Stevens.”
“For one, we found the beryllium cylinder required a safety release valve to expel hydrogen gas. At first, the gas was thought to have come from the seawater from which we harvested the raw deuterium, but as the prototype neared completion, the buildup became more pronounced, necessitating insertion of the valve.”
At this announcement, the eyes of the Director grew wide, and he sat up, alarmed. “Hydrogen gas?” he said. “And where was it coming from, if not from seawater?”
“From within the cylinder.”
“Hydrogen? Inside a beryllium cylinder?” The old man paused a moment, his eyes darting in fierce rumination. The gentlemen waited in patient silence as their employer formulated his next question.
“There wouldn’t happen to be a lead lining in that cylinder, would there?”
Stevens raised an eyebrow in piqued curiosity. “Now that you mention it, sir, yes. There’s a three-centimeter-thick layer of lead shielding to guard against particle leakage.”
The old man rose from his chair. His eyes grew stern, his voice quivering in restrained tension. “Stevens, stay where you are. The rest of you, clear this room. Now!”
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll