'Darco' is slang for 'De-Urbanized Arcological Construct'. Originally designed by the twisted genius of Dante McCallavre, the artist/architect proclaimed it a reactionary response to the rigid, archetypal Arcologies of his day. No one really knows what this means, and many engineers are frankly baffled at how the thing stays standing. Inside, the ill-lit corridors twist into odd, meandering corkscrews that mysteriously turn back on themselves. There are rumors that a strange sub-species of man inhabits the air ducts. Darcos cost $150,000 and can attract up to 45,000 brave souls.
- SimCity 2000 description of the darco
The high-speed train carrying engineer and safety inspector Kyle Harrison zoomed through the outskirts of San Diego at approximately 600 km/h. Kyle watched out the train window as the trees and houses zipped past, so fast he could barely catch a glimpse of each one before it was gone. He couldn't see much farther than the nearest houses; the sky was overcast with low-hanging stratus clouds, and a gray fog obscured everything more than a few hundred meters from the train. Kyle leant back in his seat, silently watching the buildings zoom by, and thinking about his upcoming assignment. With his rectangular european face bordered by a dark caesar cut at the top and a navy blue suit at the bottom, he looked every bit like a normal white-collar worker of the kind that would be expected on a train trip like this.
But Kyle was no ordinary safety inspector, and this was no ordinary safety inspection.
Even at the age of 35, Kyle was an expert on large-scale engineering and the internal dynamics of megastructures. After the success of the first megastructures in the early 21st century, investment in such projects rose considerably, and a demand for specialists in the field rose along with it. Kyle had already personally inspected many tall office buildings, the Gibraltar Bridge, the Atlantic Tunnel, and even instances of the first two truly large-scale arcology designs ever built. These last two were what was on his mind now, because this next assignment was in their vein: The first instance of the third large arcology design.
The first large arcologies the world had known were called the 'plymouth arcologies'. Built by Plymouth Arcologies Inc., one section of the Plymouth Contractors company, the plymouth arcologies were designed as cheap, robust, high-capacity solutions to the urban sprawl and overpopulation problems in developing countries. The first ones were put up in the 2040s, and by now 18 such structures had been built around the world. Kyle remembered the time he first went to inspect one of the massive buildings, formed in the shape of a sort of vertically stretched octahedron with the tips cut off, all painted in black to absorb more heat from the Sun. It wasn't a complex shape, but at 1200 meters high to the roof it was still very impressive. The enormous steel and concrete framework of the building gave it excellent structural integrity, and Kyle remembered thinking at the time that if all human cities were for some reason abandoned, thousands of years later the plymouth arcologies would be the last things standing. The industrial-oriented interior of the plymouth arcology was laid out with its rooms and corridors in a strict four-sided grid, with the large factory complexes in the lower section and the densely packed apartments in the upper storeys. It had given Kyle a rather dystopian impression, with its bare, straight hallways and the sort of unfinished, warehouse-like feel of the rooms. Although Kyle himself would definitely not have enjoyed living in such a place, he had ultimately had to concede that the building passed the (admittedly low) local safety standards, mostly based on its structural integrity, effective waste disposal system (which was necessary to deal with the large amount of pollution produced by the building's industrial sections) and relative lack of vertical drops and other areas where people could easily be injured.
In the 2070s, the second large design of arcology to be built was constructed, the 'forest arcologies'. While about the same proportions as the plymouth arcologies, they used a much more futuristic architecture, that emphasized aesthetics and internal dynamics over structural stability and simple layout. Each forest arcology was constructed as a huge central pole, with a series of six toroidal rings stacked one above the other around the pole, all in bright, shining white metal. Each ring had a specific purpose: The lowest one was a transportation, machinery and commerce section, followed by a residential section, an industrial section, another residential section, a commerce and hotel section and finally a domed park and golf course with some additional machinery situated underneath. At the very top of the central pillar was another domed park containing some trees and a small artificial lake. The whole structure came to about 1200 meters to the top of the highest dome, and although it fell short of the plymouth arcologies' communication antennae, as a building it was technically slightly taller than their roofs. Kyle had been amazed at the level of health and sanitation maintained inside the one he had been inspecting, with strong, fit occupants, a clean and environmentally friendly industrial area, a highly efficient recycling system, and hardly a speck of dust or litter in the whole place. Kyle had also noticed that, while the building was equipped with TV screens, computers and other media devices, they were seldom in use, and people tended to pass the time in conversation and social interaction instead. He had been informed that the other two such buildings (there were only three completed at that time, by now there were five total) operated along similar lines in almost all respects, and that this whole mechanical and social setup had been part of the basic principles of the design. Kyle had passed the arcology with flying colors, with his only concern being crime; he had noticed that while the process of discouraging media use was well-received by the building's adult residents, the adolescents among the population were uneducated, annoyed, and of course, bored out of their minds, and Kyle felt that this made for a rather volatile combination, although it was not nearly enough of a problem (yet) to affect the building's safety situation. Kyle remembered thinking after finishing his inspection that the structure would be much better used as a retirement community for seniors than as a place to raise children...and considering that the residences cost more than those in the plymouth arcologies by a rather stunning factor, he expected that it would probably end up as such eventually anyway.
Bringing himself back to the present, Kyle noticed that the houses outside the train were replacing themselves with condominiums and office buildings. The sound of the train's wheels, which had remained constant for the past two hours, was also decreasing in pitch as the train slowed down on its approach to the San Diego station. Kyle's window was now facing roughly southwest, and he knew that if it weren't for the fog and the clouds, the new arcology would have been easily visible. He had never seen it himself, although as an expert on large buildings he had seen several pictures and videos of it. Before the inspection, he would of course also be shown blueprints for the building in order to make a better assessment, and the only reason he had not already seen such blueprints was the reluctance on the part of the San Diego government to release them; although the building itself had been completed four years ago in 2092, due to various legal restrictions and what the city called 'potential for misinterpretation' the design was not yet available to the public.
A couple of minutes later, the train finally came to a halt in the San Diego station. The automatic exit door on each car opened, and Kyle followed the few other passengers who had been in his car out the door. As he passed through one of the gates that led from the station into the parking lot, the computer operating the gate spoke up, in a clear, standardized female voice. "Are you Kyle Harrison?"
"Yes." Kyle replied.
"An automatic taxi is waiting for you. You can find it in parking space 22D."
"Ah, thank you."
"You're welcome. Have a nice day."
The parking spots were laid out in a grid, named by letters from east to west and numbers from north to south. Kyle soon found the car that had been sent to fetch him. He inserted his citizen card, a universal card issued to all american citizens age 10 or over, into the slot on the door and it opened in response. He climbed in, the door closed, and the car started off. Kyle read on the car's computer screen that its next destination was the San Diego city hall. In the email sent by the city administrator of public engineering, he had been informed that he would be given a briefing at the city hall before heading over to the arcology, where he would be given a room for however long it would take him to complete his duties.
By the time the car reached the city hall, the fog had started to clear a little, although visibility was still somewhat bad; even though the San Diego International Airport was quite active, Kyle still couldn't see any of the airplanes through the clouds, although he could usually hear them well enough. Getting out of the car, he crossed the sidewalk and started down the path that led to the city hall building. There was an extensive garden of trees and flowers and grass situated around the city hall, and although it looked rather dull in the limited light and the fog, Kyle was sure it would look quite nice in full sunlight. The city hall building, too, appealed to Kyle's architectural sense, with an interesting combination of straight lines and curves, and plenty of clean, square windows situated in the reddish-brown brick and surrounded by strips of aluminum trim. As he approached it, Kyle amused himself with thinking of ways in which he would have made it better, at least in his opinion. A waterfall flowing down the front of each of those walls into a pool would give it a more dynamic and welcoming impression...but that's not what I'm here for, is it?
Once inside the building, he examined a map situated in the entrance hall, memorized a route and soon made his way to the administrator of public engineering's office. The door was locked, but it opened after he inserted his citizen card. As he entered, the man behind the desk in the office stood up and came around to shake hands.
"Well hello there, Mr. Harrison!" he said jovially. He was an older man, appearing to be in his 70s, with gray hair and some wrinkles around his sparkling blue eyes. He was a little shorter than Kyle, but somewhat heavier, although he wasn't really overweight enough to be properly called fat.
"Hello. And you're...Paul Duke, correct?"
"That's the name. Say, have I seen you before somewhere? Were you ever at Yale?"
"From 2081 to 2085. I was in an architecture program."
"I taught engineering there from 2076 to 2084. I guess you weren't in my class."
"No, I had George Vanderbilt in engineering for my first two years and then...you know, Professor Mills, I forget his first name because none of the students ever called him by it."
"Norman Mills, yes. I know them both. Outstanding men, although they tended to excel in slightly different areas...I always admired Norman more, but George was definitely good at what he did. He was the one who proposed to have Dante McCallavre give a speech at the university in 2082, were you there for that one?" Paul saw Kyle nodding and continued, "Real architectural genius, Dante McCallavre was...and of course, that brings us around to your assignment, because as you know, he was the man who designed the arcology you're going to be inspecting. Come over here, I'll show you the blueprints."
Paul led Kyle over to his desk and opened a new window on his computer screen. Four different external views of the model of the arcology were shown, one from along each axis and a third 3D rotating one. It gave Kyle the impression of what a three-dimensional french curve might look like, if such a thing existed.
"Sure looks weird, doesn't it?" Paul asked.
"Sure does. Why did you build it that way?"
Paul chuckled. "Because we had to! The San Diego arcology project wasn't receiving the kind of funding we were going to need to actually complete a building, and it was going to go down the drain, only we got some unexpected support. Have you heard of Jon Larralee?"
"You mean the billionaire investor?"
"That's the man. He's always been a big fan of Dante McCallavre's work, and he told us that in his old age, he felt that achievements were more important than money, so he offered us a considerable sum to support our project on the condition that we use McCallavre's design. We were out of other options, so we took him up on his offer and built the thing. In his plans, Dante McCallavre gave it the name 'darco'."
"Deurbanized arcological construct. Yes, I know. Does it look equally crazy on the inside?"
"Every bit of it. Take a look."
Paul switched to see-through views and started clicking through the components. The hallways looked like a tangled mess of spaghetti, the different sections were formed in curved layers that reached into and through each other, the transportation systems twisted in spirals throughout the building, and the steel superstructure itself was an almost fractal-like set of smoothly joined curves with no immediately discernible pattern or function.
Kyle breathed out slowly. "That's weird stuff, all right. Are you sure the building can even stand up? The frame doesn't look strong enough to me."
"Oh, it stands up, I assure you. Our engineering computers took over 18 times as many floating point operations to resolve the darco as they did to resolve the forest arcology, and almost 50 times as many as they took to resolve the plymouth arcology. Every result showed the building to be stable, but multiple runs using different methods produced significantly different answers as to the engineering stresses involved. Which isn't even supposed to be possible, and in fact the people who designed the programs still can't make head or tail of the discrepancies. But the building stands up just fine. I'm telling you, Dante McCallavre was a real genius. Eccentric, yes...but still a genius."
"So, the design capacity for the building is 45000 people, right?" Kyle asked.
"How many do you have now?"
"Um...about 40500, give or take a few hundred. We adjusted the prices to try to fill it up as best we could, but it's only been four years since it opened, so I suppose it's normal to have a few less than the maximum."
"And are they happy there?"
"Reasonably so. A lot of residents have reported a sense of foreboding or claustrophobia about much of the building, but at the same time, living there is fairly cheap, the health level is reasonable, the mechanical systems are decent, and many people are even attracted by the arcology's...um...imaginative aesthetics."
"By 'imaginative' you mean 'downright weird'?" Kyle grinned wryly.
"Well, to me, yes. But then, I've always been a bit of a traditionalist in my view of architecture, you know? It depends on your taste. Besides, even if I don't really enjoy it, that doesn't mean I don't admire it. And like I say, there are many who do find it appealing. Who knows, maybe you'll be one of them. I think it's really the kind of thing you have to experience for yourself to understand, whether you end up liking it or not."
"So I take it it's cheap because of this psychological effect, this perception of fear."
"Partly. Also because the residences are fairly simple and cost-efficient, the energy use of the building is low, the quantity of garbage that comes out is small and therefore costs less to dispose of, and the machinery takes very little maintenance. Dante McCallavre designed much of the machinery himself, you know. He always liked to cover every aspect of a building he was designing, he felt that he couldn't trust others with putting the finishing touches on the artwork he considered to be his. And maybe it's a good thing he designed the machines, too, because they really are reliable. That is to say, the systems have already set records for low maintenance cost and rate of mechanical problems. In fact, most of the maintenance areas have been totally sealed off to human access, because the machines run so well that letting people in would cause more harm than good."
"Hmm...like you say, a real genius. This design was his crowning achievement, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was. It was developed over a good portion of his life, and he refused to die without seeing the design through to its completion. Too bad he didn't survive long enough to see it built, though. He died back in 2087, just over a year before the city of San Diego started taking a serious look at his design. He was really eccentric, though. Didn't like being around people that much. Except kids, he liked kids. I never understood why."
"Well, personally I always thought it was because he saw kids as being more...innocent, in a sense. I think he felt that children are the ones with minds that are capable of learning new ideas, and that once people become adults they become too set in their ways- which were pretty much invariably ways that he viewed as too orthodox, and lacking in imagination. I only ever saw him during his 2082 speech at Yale, but he seemed to me to have a kind of mad scientist 'I'll show them, I'll show them all!' attitude."
"Hmm...that is some interesting reasoning. Anyway, he did try to design the darco to be child-friendly. And I think in safety terms he mostly succeeded...the real problem is that parents don't feel very good bringing their children to a place that has this sort of foreboding feel to it. You know, I expect if McCallavre was around to see it, he'd probably just complain that the parents were lacking in imagination or something." Paul chuckled.
"Yes, I expect so." Kyle paused, "Anyway, I should get working on my assignment. Besides having seen the general design of the building, is there anything else I'll need to know before I start?"
"I don't think so. You'll get an idea of how the place feels once you're there, probably a much better idea than I could give you just by describing it. If there's anything else that needs mentioning, it can probably be done during your debriefing. The residence assignment staff have already been told that you're coming, and the finances have all been taken care of, so all you'll need to do is run your citizen card through their machine and they'll tell you anything you need to know about life in the building. You're currently scheduled to stay for three nights, but if you decide you need more time to complete your inspection, that time period can be extended fairly easily. Similarly, our idea is for you to inspect the industrial sections first, then move on to the living and retail areas, but you can change that too if you think it's appropriate to do so. The car that brought you here is programmed to take you to the arcology, and we'll send it for you at any point during the inspection that you need it, as well as at the end to bring you back here for the debriefing and then back to the train station."
"Sounds good. Be seeing you, then." The two men smiled and shook hands, then Kyle took his leave.
The car was still waiting outside the city hall when Kyle reached the parking spot. The car, recognizing the cue for the next step in its scripted sequence, started off down the street. The fog, Kyle noticed, was lifting somewhat, and the clouds were also dispersing, enough even to show a bit of blue sky here and there. The buildings in that part of the city were tall enough that they obscured any sign of the arcology, but if the weather continued to improve at this rate, Kyle expected to get a good view once they arrived.
The car was programmed to go rather slowly, and the fog and clouds had mostly disappeared by the time they arrived. The tall condominiums and office buildings continued almost until they reached the park area around the arcology, with less than a block of transition area containing shorter commercial buildings. The car drove out past the buildings just as the Sun came out from behind a small patch of cloud, and Kyle got his first view of the darco.
The enormity of these buildings never failed to astound Kyle when he saw them. At almost 1400 meters tall, the darco was the world's largest free-standing structure on land. It had no antenna right at the top, but its highest floors still beat the plymouth arcology's antenna by almost 100 meters, and its top floors by over 150 meters. The shape, like both the other large arcology designs, was oriented vertically, but where the plymouth arcology and forest arcology had geometrically simple shapes and solid-looking connections to their foundations, the darco had a smooth, flowing shape with many different curves, and stood upon four curved 'legs', each of a different size, shape and function. The southwestern leg was flat and made almost entirely of steel, with no machinery running down it. The northwestern leg was apparently a utilities connection through which water, electricity, sewage and garbage were transported. The southeastern leg was an elevator leg reserved for people who were already registered residents of the arcology, as well as carrying water for the ground level swimming pool. The fourth, northeastern leg was the largest, and held the main lobby and reception area as well as providing elevators for residents, visitors and freight shipments. The area between the bottoms of the arcology's legs, underneath the main bulk of the building, was mostly composed of flat gray concrete, although the central area contained a huge pool of water, and beside the pool there were three kingfisher VTOL remote controlled fighter planes parked on the concrete; in the United States, as well as several other countries, all extremely large buildings were required to have their own air defense systems to protect them from potential terrorist attacks using hijacked airliners. The pool of water in the middle of the arcology's base served the multiple purposes of swimming pool, water reservoir and rain collector, and the water was constantly cycled up through the northwestern leg, filtered to remove harmful impurities and drained back down through the southeastern leg. One of the defining features of the arcology was the gaping archway of the civilian air terminal, facing out towards the west like a giant mouth, lined at the bottom with a row of green landing lights. Farther up the building, twisted black antennas adorned with more colored lights hung from various curves in the building's surface. Around the arcology, the terrain had been made into parkland for several hundred meters in a square, cut apart only by the roads that existed to service the arcology's transportation needs. This parkland had several purposes: First, to provide the residents of the arcology with a sunny, grassy area not included in the arcology itself, second, to ensure that if the arcology were to collapse for whatever reason, there would be a buffer zone to prevent damage to neighboring buildings and slow the spread of fire, third, to keep fires in the surrounding city from reaching the arcology, and fourth, to help lower the crime rate often associated with the high population density of arcologies. For this last, a police station just at the side of the park had also been upgraded and expanded as the arcology was being built, and was now the second-largest police station in the city, both in building size and personnel count.
The darco loomed above Kyle as the car approached it. The car was taking one of the roads through the parkland in order to arrive at the northern side of the arcology, giving Kyle a view of more than 180 degrees of the building. He couldn't help noticing that no matter which side of it he was on, it always looked like it was going to fall over from its own weight, and always in his direction. But despite appearances, Dante McCallavre's design had apparently worked, as the arcology consistently remained upright. A minute later the car slowed down and stopped in the parking area on the northern side of the arcology, an area just about perpetually in shadow due to the structure's vast silhouette that blocked the incoming sunlight save just after dawn and just before sunset. Many other people were walking in rows either into or out of the lobby area, and farther off Kyle could see a number of people splashing around in the pool, the water of which looked ominously dark due to its depth, the shadow of the arcology and the dark color of the surfaces that contained it. Kyle thought to himself that coloring the bottom of a swimming pool dark seemed a rather bad safety decision, and although it was a very minor aspect of the arcology's safety levels, he nevertheless made a mental note of it.
Like just about everything else in the darco, the lobby area was irregularly shaped with various curves, and had a dark tone and color scheme. The concrete floor went up slightly as it approached the arcology's northeastern 'foot', and had dark red carpet covering it once it got high enough that rainwater could not drain onto it. Kyle made his way across this area and through a set of doors which led through the first dark walls of the 'foot' into the lobby. Although the area inside was only slightly warmer and drier than the outside atmosphere, Kyle knew that it was air-conditioned to retain the same temperature and humidity all year round. There were quite a number of people in the lobby, some of them going between the doors and the elevators, some of them sitting around on the black fake leather seating that ran along certain potions of the walls, and some of them talking to the receptionists at the front desk, which like the seating areas was long and curved around the wall. The lighting inside the lobby was considerably more dim than that which existed inside most buildings, and was accentuated by the fact that there were no windows and the only sunlight came through the clear plastic doors leading outside. Kyle had noticed both when looking at the blueprints and while approaching the arcology in the car that the building had essentially no windows. Although most arcologies had large areas far from any windows (they had to, given their enormous size), Kyle felt that the absence of windows made a building appear more closed in and uninviting in addition, of course, to requiring even more electrical power for internal lighting, and arcologies consumed enough power as it was.
The lines in front of the receptionists were short, but fairly persistent, so Kyle had to wait a couple of minutes before he could talk to the receptionist. When the person in front of him had finished what he was doing and left for the door, Kyle stepped up to the desk.
"Hello, how can I help you today?" the receptionist asked. She was young, fairly short, caucasian, with long brown hair held back by a sort of plastic headband that went over the top of her head. Kyle had noticed that interestingly, many, but not all, of the receptionists wore similar headgear. He decided it must be either some sort of local (i.e., building-specific) convention or due to practical considerations.
"I'm Kyle Harrison, safety inspector. There should be a room reserved for me, how do I get there?"
"Oh, we were told there was going to be a safety inspector." she turned to her computer as Kyle swiped his citizen card through the slot on the desk, "Yeah, that's you. I've set your room to 'occupied', you get in using your citizen card. To find it, take elevator 8 to stop 91, or elevator 9 to stop 85, or elevator 15 to stop 113, take a right down the corridor and follow the right-hand wall until you meet your first four-way. Go straight across the four-way, then keep following the left-hand wall until you find room 15806. By 'following the wall' I mean ignoring doorways, 'cause the corridors don't have doors on them. If you get lost, just ask someone where's the nearest public computer terminal and then ask the computer for directions. Newcomers usually get lost a few times before they get used to the layout, or the lack of a layout, so that's normal and you shouldn't worry about it."
"I see. So I take elevator 8 to stop 85...or was that 81?"
"Elevator 8 to stop 91, elevator 9 to stop 85 or elevator 15 to stop 113. I recommend elevator 8, it'll probably be less busy than the others at this time of day."
"Okay, and then room 15806, is that it?"
"Yeah. Maybe you should record it?"
"Nah, I've got a good memory for numbers, but it just sometimes takes a minute to kick in. Thanks!"
There were only three other passengers getting into elevator 8 at that moment, and Kyle was sure that there would be quite a few more once it got to around rush hour; right now it was still only 2:46 PM. The elevator accelerated upwards quite quickly before leveling out its speed, as most elevators in arcologies were designed to do in order to deal with the large heights of the buildings. A screen on the side of the elevator traced its path through the building, as well as showing which stops it was heading to in what order and whether to drop off or to pick up passengers. The light in the elevator was fairly dim, as all the lighting Kyle had seen had been so far. The elevator itself was cylindrical, with a flat roof and flat floor that curved to blend smoothly into the circular walls and door.
After a while the elevator stopped, at stop 64, and two of the passengers got out. Kyle noticed that the light outside in the corridor was even dimmer than that in the elevator, and also that the floor sloped slightly. A few seconds later the elevator door had closed and the elevator car resumed its ascent.
The next stop on this trip was stop 91, and the other passenger didn't get out, so evidently he was going farther up the arcology. Although the height alone said nothing about what kind of section he was going to, the elevators themselves tended to be arranged according to sections, so elevator 8 was probably a primarily residential elevator. Kyle stepped out of it into the dimly lit corridor, and the door of the elevator closed behind him with a slight hydraulic hiss.
This corridor sloped even more than the other one had, and sported the same curve that smoothly attached the ceiling and floor with the walls as it had in the elevator. Kyle went to the right, which also happened to be the direction in which the floor sloped down, and kept to the right-hand wall, ignoring the various doorways. This was a residential section, and most of the doorways had numbers on them. The numbers mostly seemed to be around 14000 to 16000, but other than that Kyle didn't notice any particular pattern in them. The corridor itself had a number of people walking up and down it, enough that Kyle seldom had no one in his line of sight, but very few people seemed to be talking and the hallway itself, with its dim light and low ceiling, felt somewhat claustrophobic and gave the impression of being inside some sort of ant or termite colony deep under the ground, even though Kyle knew he was really hundreds of meters above it.
After one fork in the path, Kyle came to the four-way. Although it was clearly a four-way, he noticed that the corridors on each side were not quite aligned with each other, and the angles of the hallways deviated visibly from 90°. The corners were also curved, so as to preserve the continuity of the corridor's various surfaces and also to provide a little more space for people to walk through. Kyle, remembering the receptionist's instructions, crossed over to the corridor on the opposite side of the four-way and continued along the left wall. The corridor had now leveled out somewhat, although at the next fork Kyle's path began sloping downwards again while the other one sloped sharply upwards. The difference in the heights of the floor started some distance back from the fork itself, and was accounted for by another slope in the middle of the corridor, with this slope becoming steeper as the corridor widened to prepare for the fork.
There seemed to be fewer people on the next stretch of the hallway. At one point he passed a sort of elevator shaft that cut past the wall of the corridor and left an open space with a circular wall. The shaft had a ceiling just higher than the ceiling of the corridor Kyle was in, but the bottom was about four meters down, and opened on the opposite side onto another corridor which was considerably more crowded. A circular metal platform was rising through the shaft, carrying two people seated in a small, four-wheeled vehicle, a sort of corridor-buggy. The platform was rotating as it ascended, just at the right rate to match the angles of the two doorways, which were about 170° apart. As Kyle walked on, he heard the platform stop with another hydraulic hiss sound and the electric buggy roll off down the hall in the opposite direction.
Room 15806 was situated only about 30 meters down the hall from the platform shaft. Kyle inserted his citizen card, and the door slid into the wall with yet another hydraulic hiss. He stepped in, and the door closed again behind him.
If anything, the room was even darker than the corridor outside. And it wasn't the cool, atmospheric dimness of twilight outdoors, but rather a more confined, indoor dimness that, despite having a warmer feel, still seemed a bit claustrophobic, like the light from a candle inside a cave. Most of the light was coming from a number of small lamps, situated on black plastic posts and carrying conical dark green covers with a small hole in the top so as to allow some of the light to go up while most of it was directed downwards. From the relatively little light they did shed around the room, Kyle examined the various other aspects of his new temporary home.
The walls were still curved around without any hint of the rigid, straight lines that rooms were normally built with. The largest part of the apartment was the living room, which was roughly circular and had more of that black fake leather seating around the southern half, facing a screen on the opposite wall that was currently off but which would be used for watching movies or streaming video. A smaller, also circular part of the same room extended off to the west, and was equipped as a dining room; the cooking would be done primarily by machine, although there was also some kitchen equipment to allow a person to take over for sufficiently complex cooking tasks. The area of the wall near the dining room ceiling was mostly composed of cupboards, although in one place there was a large ventilator grating, one of the few things Kyle had seen in the building yet that possessed actual corners. Between these two parts of the room, on the northeast, was the door through which Kyle had entered, situated a few meters back from the room itself and connected to it with a sort of short hallway. The apartment also extended back past the living room area, but didn't curve nearly as much as the edge of the living room, leaving a small island just behind the seating area. The island was currently adorned with an abstract metal sculpture, although a set of thin cracks on the top of the island showed that this could probably be removed and replaced with something else according to the aesthetic preferences of the apartment's occupants. The hall behind the living room had three doors, two on the right and one right at the end; Kyle guessed by their designs and proportions that the first one was a closet, the second one a bathroom and the third one a bedroom. He tested them and verified that his guesses had been correct.
The bedroom was somewhat more square than the other rooms, but had similar lighting to the rest of the apartment. It was not very large, and held very little aside from one approximately queen size bed, one chair, one nightstand, another video screen (situated so that the foot of the bed pointed towards it) and another ventilator grating. The grating was large, large enough even for a person to fit into, and Kyle decided that due to the convoluted structure of the building, high-capacity air ducts were necessary to keep the atmosphere from getting too stuffy, although it was still stuffier than he would have liked. The grating had a sign just below it that read 'VENTILATION COVER - DO NOT REMOVE' in big red letters, and thinking back, Kyle recalled that the one in the kitchen had carried the same warning.
The bathroom, unlike the bedroom, was somewhat better lit than any other part of the building Kyle had seen yet. Although it initially seemed even brighter just by the contrast, once his eyes got used to it he could tell that it was still dimmer than the lighting inside most buildings. Whether the dim lighting had been designed to save power or whether it was purely for artistic purposes Kyle wasn't sure, but from what he'd heard of Dante McCallavre, and from the dark color schemes also used throughout the building, he suspected it was probably the latter. But there was still plenty of light to illuminate the various aspects of the bathroom: The sink, which like most modern sinks was turned on by a sensor, the toilet, which lacked a tank and was connected to the wall and floor by an almost gigeresque tangle of ribbed pipes, a towel rack, and of course the bath. This last was large, about the size of the average hot tub and somewhat deeper, and like most of what Kyle had seen in the building was composed entirely of curved surfaces with no particular pattern. It could be segregated from the rest of the bathroom by a sliding door made of plastic, which although transparent looked very waterproof and might, Kyle thought, cause a sensation of claustrophobia purely through the impression that if the equipment failed, the bath area could fill entirely up with water and drown its occupant. Although he decided that some sort of safety measures must surely have been installed, he nevertheless made a mental note to ask what would happen if the equipment were to fail.
Going back to the living room and sitting down, Kyle stared into the ceiling while mentally compiling a list of the risk factors he had seen so far. The building got good marks for avoiding sharp surfaces and long vertical drops, there was almost no garbage or other sanitation problems, and the air quality, while a bit more stale and stuffy than the fresh air outside, was still well within reasonable limits for a building of this size and type, and was much better than that of many buildings Kyle had inspected in the past. On the other hand, the dim lighting made most kinds of accidents somewhat more likely, the sloped corridors also increased the probabilities of certain kinds of accidents, the building's odd design seemed destined to encounter structural problems, and of course Kyle couldn't forget the deep, darkly painted swimming pool at the bottom of the building that looked to him like a lifeguard's nightmare if there ever was one. But despite all that, his rational mind still knew that so far he hadn't seen any evidence that the safety levels in the building were below the necessary standards, assuming that the structure of the building stayed standing. But there remained a lot more area of the building to cover, and many different types of sections to inspect, before Kyle could give the city a complete report on the building. He decided to take Paul's advice and start with the industrial areas, given that they were usually the most dangerous parts of an arcology. After finding out from the computer screen in the living room how to get to the nearest industrial section and getting a drink of water from the tap in the kitchen, he left the room.
The elevator the computer had instructed him to use, elevator 56, was apparently best accessed the other way down the corridor Kyle's room was on, opposite to the part he had come along from elevator 8. He started down the corridor, trying to keep all the directions in his head so he wouldn't have to suffer the embarrassment of asking a computer.
After passing a number of rooms, and a five-way intersection at which the slope of the corridor leveled back off, Kyle found the corridor getting wider and taller. On either side the residential rooms were replaced, not all at once but over the course of a few doors, by a series of small shops, accompanied by more entrances into other corridors lined with similar stores. Although Kyle had expected the commercial areas to be better lit than the rest of the arcology, he found to his surprise that even the shops had dim lighting, and relatively little of it streamed out their windows into the corridor. There were also more people here, although fewer than Kyle would have expected for a commercial area; he decided that many of the people must be working, either in the offices or the factories, and that there would be more people around in the evening after the day's work shift was over.
It was at this point that Kyle noticed that some of the shops he was passing were duplicates of the ones he had passed a few minutes before. Glancing back and forth at them, he suddenly realized the truth: He was heading along one of the same corridors he had already come through, only in the opposite direction. This was rather odd, because he felt the corridor had been going upwards just about the whole way since he last passed these shops, and at that point his surroundings suddenly seemed that much more esheresque than they had before. Throwing humility to the winds, he cleared his throat at the next person coming along the hallway and asked "Excuse me, how do I get to elevator 56?"
The thin, bald man turned to look at him, through dark gray eyes that reminded Kyle of some kind of sedimentary rock. "You got turned around, huh?"
"I...I'm afraid so, yes." he made the decision to confess, "This is my first day here."
"I got lost for the first few weeks I was here too, you know. You gotta take a left a ways back up the corridor there. You probably missed it the first time through."
Kyle made his way back up the corridor, retracing his previous steps until he got to a left turn. The man had been right, his brain had ignored the turn the first time through, because it was taller than the corridor he was in and the curves of the floor and ceiling somehow threw off Kyle's eye, forming the illusion that there wasn't really any fork at all. How it did that Kyle had no idea, but he made sure to go along this new hallway this time around. Only a few meters farther on, he encountered elevator 56.
Elevator 56 ran more or less directly to the industrial section Kyle was headed for, although there was one stop and a few twists and turns in the shaft on the way. It seemed that just about no elevator here ran precisely up and down, they all curved around in strange, unexpected twists just like everything else. Sometimes Kyle wasn't even sure whether the elevator was really accelerating in the direction it seemed to be accelerating, or whether it had tilted on a set of gimbals to create the illusion that it was accelerating in a different direction. He didn't put it past Dante McCallavre to do something like that. But at any rate, the elevator did go where the computer said it would go, and when Kyle got off he found himself in the industrial section he had picked out before.
He had expected the industrial section to be, if anything, even darker than the rest of the arcology. On the contrary, it was noticeably more well-lit than the areas he'd been in so far, although it was still somewhat darker than the interior of most buildings. The corridor he had emerged in was lined with steel plates, often painted in black and yellow diagonal bars, and with various machine components sticking out of them. A set of tracks ran down the corridor along the floor, and looking up, Kyle saw a similar set of tracks on the ceiling. He stepped back as a factory worker walked by, wearing an orange hardhat and yellow overalls with reflective strips on many parts of it and guiding a motorized cart full of small white plastic clips, apparently destined for an assembly area where they would be incorporated into some kind of finished products. As the worker walked past behind his cart, Kyle followed him. However, he was immediately stopped at a security checkpoint.
"Employee identification transmitter not detected. Please insert citizen card." said the checkpoint computer terminal, as its screen displayed the same message. Mounted beside the screen was a mechanical arm, and although the movement components were covered with flexible black plastic, the business end, carrying a camera and a tranquilizer gun, was completely uncovered, ready to leap into place and fire a tranquilizer dart at Kyle's torso if he took one step across the invisible infrared detection field in front of him. He complied with the computer's request.
"Citizen identity verified." said the computer, after the card had been swiped through, "Kyle Harrison, on a safety inspection visit. You have been cleared to pass."
Kyle stepped through the detection array and continued down the corridor. He went rather slowly, in order to observe the environment around him and take note of anything that might be a safety concern. As a result, he had to step out of the way three times when factory workers came along the corridor pushing carts similar to the one had seen at first.
The corridor ended in a huge room, by far the largest one Kyle had seen in the arcology yet. The ceiling was only about a meter higher than it was in most of the other areas Kyle had been through, but the room's width and length were much larger- close to 40 meters in both directions. The floor was less tilted than it usually was in the residential/commercial sections' corridors, but still had a slight curve towards the side. There were about 30 factory workers in the room, all taking care of different parts of the manufacture of...whatever it was they were making here. Kyle walked up to a conveyor belt that seemed to contain the most complete versions of the objects. They turned out to be some kind of electric motors, probably general-purpose, and at any rate pretty much what he'd expect to see being made in an arcology factory (it was a known fact that arcologies weren't very good environments for heavy-duty manufacturing, mostly due to transportation concerns). He walked along the conveyor belt towards the nearest factory worker, who was overseeing a machine that put two pieces of plastic casing onto each motor, and cleared his throat.
"Me?" asked the worker. He was a short, bald man whose thick, dark eyebrows contrasted sharply with his pale forehead.
"Yeah... I'm here to evaluate the safety of this building, and I'm wondering if you have any concerns. You know, things that don't seem to be safe, ideas for what I should be concentrating on, because, well, you know this building better than I do and it's common practice to ask the locals about such things."
The man shrugged. "Oh, it seems okay to me. It's clean, the machinery runs fine...I'm more concerned about the air than anything else. It always seems a bit stale compared to the outside stuff, you know? The water can be the same way, although I don't notice it as much. Anyway, I don't think it's a good place for old folks or people with...how do you pronounce that lung thing again? Asmath?"
"Yeah. I always wondered why we didn't solve it forever when we could. They were making good progress on it back in the 20s, they'd isolated the gene patterns responsible, but then the Babel Convention came along and that was that."
"Well, it was a lesser of two evils problem, right?"
"I suppose so."
Kyle, like just about everyone else in the world, was aware of the Babel Convention. In the late 20s and early 30s, scientific breakthroughs in the fields of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering caused a series of increasingly fatal disasters, with only sheer luck having prevented some of the more prominent ones from becoming global in scale- in which event they would well have had the potential to cause nothing less than the total destruction of human civilization. In 2029, tens of thousands of people in India died before a genetically engineered flu virus was successfully contained. In 2030, reproducing nanomachines killed dozens of people in Switzerland and were only minutes away from destroying a whole town before programmers fixed a software issue and brought them to a halt. In 2032, over 200000 japanese were killed after an AI took over the laboratory and military base where it was being tested, and the japanese government sacrificed another 100000 people in the same area by calling in a chinese nuclear strike in order to destroy the machines. In the face of these events, all the nations on Earth quickly agreed to set very strict limits on scientific endeavors in the associated fields, and on September 15, 2034, this was officially signed into effect as the Babel Convention. As a result, relatively little technological progress had been made in the past 60 years, and there was even some amount of technology which had already been developed but was banned from actually being built or used.
But that was the past, and Kyle had things to do in the present. He walked along the side of the room, mentally noting and evaluating everything he saw. When he reached the other side of the room, he approached another of the factory workers, this time a rather tall man with grayish-brown hair, a goatee of the same color, and deep-set dark blue eyes.
"Hi there. Can I just ask you something?"
"Yeah, uh, sure."
"I'm hired to inspect this building and take note of all safety concerns. Do you have any particular ideas as to things that I should look at, I mean, do you feel you're safe here, or are there any health risks I should know about? Stuff like that."
"Man, I just work here 'cause it was the best job I could find around. I don't live here, no, I wouldn't like to live here at all...this place gives me the creeps. Have you heard about the things?"
"No, what things?"
"The things. They say there are things living in the ventilation system. Some even say that they come out during the night, and do...oh, horrible things. Stealing babies to eat, leaving obscene marks on the walls..." Kyle's eyebrows were growing increasingly asymmetrical, "No one really knows what they look like, some say they're like giant spiders...I think maybe they're really construction workers who got sealed inside and the chemicals mutated them into horrible shapes... Officially they don't exist, of course. The government always likes to cover these things up, you know? They say stuff like 'Oh, but no one's ever actually seen anything.' Well I say just because no one's seen something doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
"Yeah," said Kyle sarcastically, "and I bet you think the Mars landings were faked, too."
"Well, yeah, they were staged at Area 51..."
"I see. Anyway I think I should be going now..." He left quickly.
There didn't seem to be very many other workers around who looked like they wanted to talk, so Kyle contented himself with scanning the various parts of the room and compiling the risk factors in his mind. He had to admit that for an industrial section, the area seemed to have relatively few health risks, and most of the workers seemed to be operating their machinery with a safe enough level of skill.
After checking out three other floors in the same section and noting a pretty similar environment in terms of safety hazards, it was time for Kyle to leave- not least because most of the factories were closing for the night. When Kyle went back to the elevator, he found it already packed full of factory workers and had to wait for the next car, which was also fairly full by the time it closed its doors and began to descend. Most of the workers had already gotten off by the time it reached the floor where Kyle was going, but other people had boarded it on some stops as well and there were still five other people in it when Kyle got out.
The hallway contained a lot more people now than it had previously. As Kyle walked along it back towards his room, he came across a security guard walking the other way. This was hardly surprising, as arcologies had a tendency towards high crime rates, but it did give Kyle an opportunity to interrogate someone who might be more knowledgeable about the conditions in the building. He approached the guard, backing up against the wall to let other people past.
"Hi, are you busy?"
"Not right at the moment."
"Okay, well, I'm here to evaluate the safety levels of this building, so as a security guard, do you have any particular concerns?"
"I can't really say... I mean, statistically the place is pretty safe, and I can't think of any particular hazards offhand that would compromise that, but I still think the whole building is kind of creepy and foreboding. And of course, crime is always an issue...but that's what men like me are here for, and so far we've done a pretty good job. Seems to me the kind of crime that goes on here isn't usually the violent kind, it's mostly vandalism and some amount of burglary but I think we've only had under a dozen cases of violent crime since the place was built, and only one murder, which was back in 2093. Seems to me it's only the saner part of society that comes to live here anyway."
"Because they're the ones who can best handle the environment over long periods of time?"
"I suppose so. Like I say, it's creepy. Most of the crime we do get is from youth, kids who are flexible enough to live here but still have a tendency towards mischief. We've got 84 security personnel in the building, and between us we usually manage to keep crime down to acceptable levels, so I don't think it's a big hazard." he stood thinking for a moment, "You know, one thing I'm a bit worried about, I must admit, is the machinery. The building's administration decided that the machines were so reliable they didn't need hardly any maintenance, so they sealed off a lot of the maintenance areas so people wouldn't hurt themselves on the equipment or get themselves lost in the tunnels. But I think maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Sure, it might be unlikely for the machines to fail, but what if they do fail? Thousands of people might be left without enough oxygen, water or electricity. I don't think it's worth the risk, but you can probably estimate it better than I can anyway, right?"
"I hope so, it's my job after all." Kyle smiled, "Thanks for your time, though. I guess I should be going." He turned to leave.
"Heading back to your apartment for dinner?"
Kyle turned back. "Yeah, why?"
"If you're inspecting the building anyway, you might as well stop for dinner at one the eating areas on the way back. Take a right turn at the four-way just before Cassidy's Toy Store- it should be on your right- and keep to the left from there and you'll come to eating area 36. There's a big selection, they've got I think six fast food outlets there, I recommend the sushi joint but if sushi isn't your thing then the chinese place is also very good considering it's fast food."
"All right, thanks for the advice, I'll think about it."
Figuring that he was going to be eating breakfast, at least, in his room anyway, Kyle decided to take the guard's advice. He found eating area 36, with some difficulty (it seemed to him as though 'with some difficulty' applied to getting just about anywhere in this building), and was surprised to find it if anything even darker than most of the rooms he'd been in so far, with most of the light coming from the advertising screens on the fast food outlets.
There was a MacDonald's, of course, as well as a Pizza Planet and a Watson Vegetarian, which rounded out the chain stores. The other three outlets were composed of a sushi joint called Madame Nirioko's Sushi, a chinese place called Fung Shen, and a coffee shop called Freshground Wonders. Kyle didn't care for sushi, so instead he scanned the chinese place's menu and quickly decided on sweet and sour pork (a particular favorite of his) and mixed vegetables with garlic sauce; as was customary, all orders automatically came with an appropriate quantity of rice. Both the employees were busy, so he placed his order at the computer console instead, then waited in line. The lineup was short, but the food preparation, which was mostly automated, was even quicker, and his meal was ready by the time he got to the counter. The transaction was of course handled automatically by the computer system, so he simply took the food, said "Thanks." quickly and headed back towards the tables.
It took Kyle somewhat longer than he would have liked to find a free table, as the eating area was quite crowded at this time of day. It was less noisy in the eating area than he had expected, however, as the walls seemed to be designed to absorb some of the sound, and this effect added on to the dim lighting to create an even more claustrophobic effect. Kyle still hadn't gotten used to the whole feel of the arcology, but he tried his best to ignore it so as to enjoy his food. The security guard was right, it was good considering it was fast food, and Kyle made sure to fix the location of the eating area in his mind- or he would have done, only he realized that he had no idea where exactly he was relative to the few other landmarks he knew. He decided that for the purposes of Dante McCallavre's architecture, it might be more useful to think in terms of paths and branches rather than in terms of three-dimensional space, but he wasn't used to thinking that way at all and expected to have difficulty using the technique.
"Can I sit here?"
Kyle, who had been paying more attention to his food than anything else for the past couple of minutes, looked up at the voice. An asian woman was standing next to the chair on the opposite side of the table, holding a paper plate bearing the Watson Vegetarian logo. She appeared to be chinese, in her 20s, and was quite tall for her ethnicity and rather attractive.
"Um, yeah, sure." replied Kyle, hoping he hadn't hesitated for too long, "Vegetarian, huh?"
"Not strictly." she said, sitting down, "I just have a weakness for caesar salad, and that's the only place here that sells it. Kind of ironic that I'm the one with american food and you're the one with chinese!" she took a bite and sat silent for a moment, "This place is pretty crowded, huh?"
Not used to it yet? "Are you new here?"
"Yeah, I've only been here five days." she said, with her mouth full, "Sorry." she swallowed, "What about you, Mr...?"
"Harrison. Kyle Harrison. I just arrived here today, and I'm only going to be sticking around for a few days, I'm here to inspect the building for safety hazards. And your name is...?"
"Zhang. Jennifer Zhang." she smiled, "I'm a sociologist, I'm visiting this place to gather information on the social dynamics of the building. I'm working with a team of fellow UC graduates to put together comparisons of all the world's arcologies, so as to be able to better predict the effects of this way of living and better design future megastructures."
"And what are your thoughts so far?"
"Well, I've only visited here and one of the forest arcos, so I can't compare it with the plymouth arcos. And I must say, they're both pretty far from being normal, but the forest arcologies are still a lot more normal than this place. They're still too, you know, hippyish for my tastes, though, which kind of offsets the friendly atmosphere...I think I actually prefer it here, even if it is a bit dark. It's certainly a unique experience, anyway. How have you found it so far?"
"It's a bit too early for me to make a judgment I guess it's okay. Creepy, yes, but not prohibitively so. The architecture is certainly very interesting, not like anything else I've ever seen. So far I haven't noticed any major safety hazards, and the place is reasonably clean and doesn't seem very dangerous, but of course the darkness itself poses some amount of risk. With such a unique building, we're probably going to have to rely more on statistics and less on observations than usual."
"Which means your job is less important."
"Well, with arcologies, the dynamics are somewhat more complex than with normal buildings, so it's still important to have information on all sides of the issue."
They both ate in silence for a while.
"Call me Kyle."
"Likewise, call me Jen. Kyle...have you heard those rumors about the monsters yet?"
"Um...one factory worker I talked to did say something about some 'things' that supposedly live in the ventilation system and, like, eat babies or something. Where did you hear about them?"
"Oh, various people. It seems like just about everyone in the arcology is aware of the rumors. Some of them think they're nonsense, some of them are intrigued by the idea, but only a few seem to seriously believe in any real monsters."
"I see. Why do you ask, anyway?"
"Well..." she leaned forward and lowered her voice, "Two nights ago- you see, there's a ventilation cover right at the foot of my bed- two nights ago, I thought I heard some kind of noise coming from behind that ventilation cover. Not a machine noise, but more of an animal noise. It seemed to stop as soon as I moved, but..."
"You're thinking the rumors might be true?"
"No!" she blushed, "No, not really, I'm thinking it's probably more like...rats, maybe? It's probably rats or cockroaches or something, and maybe that's where people got this idea in the first place, from hearing those noises and then just from the whole weird atmosphere of the place. But if the building is infested with some sort of pest, as a safety inspector you'd want to know, right?"
"I suppose so."
They both ate in silence for a while longer.
"I'm done." Jennifer announced.
"I'm a quick eater." she stood up, "I ought to be going now. Glad to have made your acquaintance, Kyle." she smiled and offered her hand.
Kyle smiled back and shook it. "Pleased to meet you too."
She left, leaving Kyle to finish his meal. A few minutes later he finished, tossed the plastic pot and chopsticks into the nearest recycling chute, and started heading back to his room. He got lost only once on the way there, and decided he was making progress. Upon arriving back at his room, he checked his email and then typed down a log of what he'd seen so far and his interpretation of the safety and health levels of the arcology as he perceived them. When this was done, he still had a good two hours before his normal bedtime, which he spent watching a movie. At 9:30, feeling exhausted after his long day, he flopped into bed and soon feel asleep.
He woke up. With no windows in the room, he had to rely on his watch to see what time it was. It was 2:35 in the morning. Kyle didn't usually wake up in the middle of the night, but it did happen occasionally, and it tended to occur more when he was visiting some new place. Lying back, he tried his best to blank out his mind and get himself back to sleep.
A few minutes later he was still trying to get back to sleep when he thought he heard a noise. Rats? Mice? Cockroaches? Just my imagination? He sat up in bed and listened carefully. For a few moments there was silence, then it came again: Inside the ventilator cover he distinctly heard some kind of squeaking noise, along what sounded like the patter of small feet. The sounds continued, but quickly grew fainter, as if the rats or mice or whatever were running back down the air duct away from him. A short time later, the whole room was silent. After making a mental note to write down in his report that there was some species of pest in the building, Kyle lay back down and slowly drifted off to sleep.
When he next awoke, his watch told him it was already 7:25 in the morning. He turned on the light, eased himself out of bed and headed for the kitchen to have breakfast. The whole apartment still looked exactly as it had the night before, and Kyle couldn't help thinking that arcologies were kind of weird that way, how they always had pretty much the same lighting no matter what the time of day because only so little of them was close enough to the windows to admit any light. Except for the forest arcos, in which the lighting was usually programmed to follow the day/night cycle.
Kyle's favorite breakfast was scrambled eggs with toast and jam, and the automated kitchen equipment was quite capable of producing an easy meal like this without any human intervention. It did quite a good job, in Kyle's opinion, and he decided he would have to experiment with its capabilities later.
After breakfast, Kyle spent the next several hours going from place to place, scanning everything he could lay eyes on and mentally (or sometimes digitally) recording it all so as to best compile his report. Even with his expert training in searching out every significant detail in every bit of architecture he saw, he was hard pressed to find very much wrong with the arcology outside of the overall dim lighting and foreboding atmosphere. Garbage, most especially, was at lower levels than he had seen in almost any other arcology, or indeed, in any large building used for residential purposes; even the forest arcos tended to have more litter than Kyle saw here, at least in some of their sections. However, wherever all the garbage was going, it was evidently feeding whatever pests Kyle had heard in the ventilator, which didn't say much for the arcology's garbage disposal system. Kyle decided to confront the arcology's administration about the issue of the pests, as he had to know exactly what sorts of vermin were living in the arcology in order to properly evaluate the health risk they posed. After eating lunch back at his room (the kitchen machinery made a pretty decent salami sandwich too, Kyle noticed), he asked the computer in his room the way to the office of whoever was in charge of the building's pest management. It was way up near the top of the arcology, which was common practice for an arcology's administration, for a number of reasons. Kyle's room was above the middle of the arcology, but the elevator going up to the administration offices went on a more circuitous route than the one he had originally come up in, so the trip actually took even longer. When he did get there, he was pleasantly surprised to find the area somewhat more brightly lit than the areas he had been in. More comparable to the bathroom in my apartment. He grinned at the rather demeaning comparison.
The arcology had no specific pest management office, so Kyle went to the health administration office instead. He had to wait outside for ten minutes before the office's lunch break ended and he was allowed in. The secretary, a middle-aged caucasian woman with curly brown hair and half-moon glasses, looked up at him rather expressionlessly and asked "Hello, how can I help you today?"
"I'm Kyle Harrison, I've been hired to evaluate the darco for safety. I have reason to believe that this building's maintenance areas are harboring some kind of pests, and I need to talk to someone who knows exactly what kind of-"
"We don't have pests here." the secretary announced coldly.
"I said we don't have pests here. If we did, we'd know about it already." she tilted her head and looked Kyle up and down, "Young man, you've just been listening to too many of those rumors. There's nothing in the maintenance areas, got it?"
"It's not the rumors. I've heard it myself, I know there's something in there."
"You've got an overactive imagination." the secretary declared, "Now run along, I don't have all day for this stuff." She turned back to her work, and Kyle, feeling more than a little annoyed, turned and left.
On the way back down in the elevator, he realized that he felt too frustrated with the office secretary to do his job in the unbiased fashion required, so he decided he'd instead take the opportunity to try out the arcology's giant pool, which was apparently the only large sports and activities area in the whole building; Dante McCallavre hadn't designed the darco to accommodate any other sports sections, and the lighting would have made it rather pointless anyway. Besides, this would give Kyle a chance to have a closer look at the safety and potential hazards of the pool, and hopefully he'd get the chance to talk to one of the lifeguards as well. Feeling somewhat better as a result of making the decision, he stopped off at his room to get his swimsuit, then headed back down one of the elevators that led to ground level.
Kyle changed into his swimsuit in the changing rooms situated in the southeastern leg of the building before heading outside towards the pool. As he walked out, he noticed the afternoon sunlight penetrating part of the way under the arcology, and, having gotten used to the dim lighting of the building's interior, he blinked at the brightness.
There were about a hundred people in the pool by Kyle's estimate. In a normal pool that would have been plenty, but this one was enormous, stretching out almost like a lake, and the occupants, most of them clustered near the edges, only managed to dot parts of its inky black surface. Most of the swimmers were housewives and their children, here to enjoy the afternoon, but in one area a swim team with an instructor appeared to be doing a circuit of part of the pool. There were also two boats floating near the edge, which actually looked less out of place than would have been expected due to the pool's darkness, curved shoreline and vast extent making it much more lake-like than a normal swimming pool. The edge of the pool carried no depth indicators, but its height appeared to be a proportional representation of the depth of the water underneath, so Kyle could quickly estimate which areas were safe to dive in. Kyle was a fairly good swimmer, but the pool was over 400 meters across at its widest point, and it took Kyle several minutes to complete the distance. The darkness of the water, caused more by the dark paint on the pool than by depth, looked every bit as foreboding as the dim lighting inside the building itself, making him feel that if he sank in it, he would never be seen again. He tested this perception upon reaching the opposite side, and almost felt silly when nothing unusual happened.
Since the arcology offered little in the way of exercise opportunities (pacing the corridors wasn't Kyle's idea of a good walk, even if it did serve the purpose of exercise), this pool was about the best thing available. Appropriately, Kyle did a couple more laps of the pool before resting at one side. He also tried touching the bottom at various depths, mostly to get a better feel for the topology, and found the surface unsettlingly smooth, giving the impression that it would be hard to get a good toehold on it. Upon coming back up after one dive, he happened to look up, and noticed that, if anything, seeing the vast dark bulk of the arcology looming directly overhead was even more ominous than the darkness of the pool. It was too large to really be called claustrophobic, and at any rate it was less the cramped feeling than the sense of the arcology's enormous weight, balanced on these strangely curved legs that looked like they could give way at any moment, that gave it the feel it had. Kyle traced the curve of the arcology, from where it hung over 200 meters above him, down along the dark ribbing and slowly blinking lights, towards the southwestern leg...
...and right into the face of Jennifer Zhang.
"You?" Kyle asked incredulously. After getting over his initial surprise at seeing her face, he noticed that she was wearing a black bikini, so evidently she had come here to try the pool as well. She must have had a good sense of style, as it complemented her hair perfectly.
"Me!" she replied, smiling, "Fancy meeting you here! What were the chances, huh?"
"Actually not as bad as you might think. We're both new here and we're both only staying for a few days, so naturally we both wanted to try the pool while we were here, and this afternoon was a reasonable time to do so."
"You know, you make a lot of sense sometimes." she nodded, "Oh, by the way, how do I look?" She posed for him.
"I just got it." she slipped into the water beside him, "I decided, given that I wasn't going to be here very long, I should get something as a sort of souvenir."
"So I guess now you have to do a lap or two so that you can write 'I swam the darco pool' on it?"
She laughed. "I'll race you."
"I would, only I just did it three times...I'm gonna rest first. I also have to talk to one of the lifeguards."
"What for? Oh, I see, it's a safety thing, you don't like the dark paint job."
"And the depth. The deepest parts get up to 20 meters, apparently. Can the lifeguards even swim that deep? I know I can't."
"I can. I don't know what it is about me...I'm not very good at muscle endurance, but I've always liked freediving, and I can hold my breath for ages. When I was in high school I used to freak my PE class out every year, first day of the swimming section, by lying still at the bottom of the pool for over three minutes. Do you know, they almost called an ambulance once? Boy was it ever funny! They used to call me 'the mermaid'." she paused, "Kyle, I'm just thinking...if you want to talk to a lifeguard anyway, how about I put them to the test while we're at it?"
"You mean fake yourself drowning?"
"Yeah! Turn away for a minute or two, make it look like you aren't paying attention to me, and I'll just sink myself and see how long before one of them responds."
"Jen, I'm not sure if that's a good-"
"Toodle-oo!" she dropped under the surface. With a sigh of resignation, Kyle turned the other way and began paddling slowly away.
A short while later he heard a buzzing sound, which appeared to be coming closer. Turning around, he saw one of the two boats moving swiftly on a line that brought it a few meters to his right. As it passed the point where Jennifer had submerged, one of its two occupants leapt overboard and plunged into the water. Unable to see due to the ripples reflections on the surface, Kyle went a short distance under the water in order to get a better view of the proceedings. Both Jennifer's limp, drifting form and the quickly moving lifeguard appeared rather fuzzy through the water, but from what he could see, Kyle decided the lifeguard was probably male and caucasian. Strangely enough, he was moving very fast despite apparently keeping in a diving position without moving his arms. Kyle struck out towards the two of them, quickly covering the distance while keeping an eye on what was going on.
Jennifer remained still in the water until her would-be rescuer was a short distance away, then in one smooth motion reoriented herself to be upright and waved at the lifeguard, who came to a sudden stop. Kyle wished he could see the guy's face clearly through the water. That's gotta be priceless. Jennifer started swimming back up towards the surface, and after a short pause the lifeguard followed her, and Kyle surfaced as well.
"What the fu...what did you think you were doing?" spluttered the lifeguard, shaking the water off his face. Kyle noticed that he appeared rather more middle eastern than european.
"What do you mean?" asked Jennifer innocently.
"Oh!" she giggled, "You must have thought I was drowning!"
"Of course we did! What did you expect?"
"I dunno. I guess I just didn't know you'd see me and think I was really in trouble."
"Well, next time think about it before you do something like that, okay?"
"Okay!" She grinned and nodded vigorously.
"Hello there." said Kyle, "What's going on here?"
"The lifeguard thought I was drowning!" said Jennifer, and giggled again. Man, thought Kyle, you should get an acting job.
"An honest mistake." said the other lifeguard, slowly moving towards them on the boat, "Just don't do it again, all right, young lady?"
"While you're here, can I ask you a few questions?" asked Kyle, "I'm Kyle Harrison, I'm inspecting this building for safety hazards and I have some concerns about the pool."
"I guess so." said the second lifeguard, "Fire away."
"Well, I was worried about the response time, but with the boat and that thing," he motioned to the DPV the first lifeguard had been using, "you seem to have that well in hand. My main concern right now is visibility. I mean, most pools have light paint, but here you've got a dark color scheme and deep water and it seems to me that it'd be hard to see anyone down there. Are you sure you can cover the pool properly with that kind of visibility?"
"Yes. See, the thing is, we don't rely on the visible spectrum only. The pool is equipped with thermal sensors, so anything warm in the water, we can see...and people stay warm for some time after they're drowned, so there's no chance of missing anyone. Our computers are programmed to notify us if there's a potential emergency, so we don't need to constantly scan the thermal imaging by eye."
"And what about the boat? Don't you think it's more than a little unsafe to run a boat around where so many people are swimming?"
"No. Our two boats both use magnetohydrodynamic drives that can't harm swimmers, and their computers can keep track of everyone through the thermal sensor data and will always stop or steer automatically before a collision can happen."
Kyle raised his eyebrows. "Sounds like you've got all the bases covered, then. Keep up the good work."
"And you, young lady." said the first lifeguard, "Don't scare us like that again, all right?" The second lifeguard started the boat's engine and they moved off.
"'Young lady'?" said Jennifer, frowning, "I'm 32."
"You're older than you look." said Kyle.
"Thanks...but I already know. And what's more, I intend to keep it that way. While we're on the subject, how old are you?"
"Turned 35 in January."
"My birthday's in April. April 12." she paused, "Anyway, I'm gonna go swim across now. See you later!"
After swimming around a bit more, Kyle was feeling better about his failure at the health administration office and decided it was time to get back to work. He wanted to cover as much ground as possible while he was here, so as to be able to better judge the building as a whole. It was unfortunate that the maintenance areas had mostly been sealed off, since he would be able to give better estimates if he could have inspected them too, but apparently the administrators had their reasons.
Since he was already at ground level, after finishing at the pool and getting changed back into his clothes he went around the ground level area just to see that everything was in order. Afterwards, he spent the next few hours in some commercial sections, making sure the stores were appropriately safe and that the level of hygiene was good. He had noticed that litter was slightly more prevalent in the commercial areas than in the living areas, but was still at a relatively low level for an arcology. In the meantime, he also couldn't help noticing the widespread use of weird architecture and transportation systems, including the circular platforms and electric buggies of the type he'd seen earlier. He also saw another smaller type of buggy with three wheels, and furthermore, a few of the largest corridors were equipped with pairs of overhead monorail tracks from which hung small, rounded railcars. They made a metallic train noise when they passed, but the inner surfaces of the corridors were very good at absorbing the sound, which tended to die away into silence surprisingly fast after a railcar had passed. Despite this sound absorption, though, the whole building was also constantly filled with a faint hum, the muffled sound of thousands of pieces of machinery sending their vibrations throughout the darco's twisted structure.
After what amounted to another rather exhausting and this time also less satisfying day of work, Kyle went back to his apartment for supper, wrote down a log of his findings, and then made his way to bed. Despite having a bit of a headache by this time due to everything he'd been doing- and also possibly the somewhat stale air- he fell asleep quite quickly.
Kyle woke up. Once again, the glow of his watch on the nightstand told him it was still the middle of the night. What was more, he distinctly heard some kind of noise behind the ventilator cover. The sound was magnified by the relative silence that pervaded the rest of the room, and it sounded to him that something was moving around back inside the ventilator duct. In addition, occasionally he also heard another sound, something that sounded almost like an animal voice.
He sat up quickly, in an attempt to hear the sound better. Somewhat to his shock, he thought he saw for an instant the glint of an eye behind one of the openings in the horizontal slats of the ventilator cover, followed a moment later by a loud scrabbling noise as if something had seen him move and was now beating a hasty retreat. As it diminished farther into the air duct, it was accompanied by another sound, a sort of inane chitter that sent shivers running up Kyle's spine. A few seconds after that it was gone, and everything was once again silent and still.
Kyle waited for a minute or two before lying back down and staring at the ceiling above him. The noise had sounded big to him, too big to be a cockroach or even a rat. But the magnifying effect of the silence (save for the constant, low hum of the arcology's mechanical systems) and the darkness could easily have made it sound a lot louder and bigger than it really was. At any rate, there was no longer any doubt that the arcology was inhabited by some sort of pest, even if it was a lot smaller than it had sounded in the dark, quiet room. And it was Kyle's job to find out what that pest was, so he could determine what kind of safety risk it posed. Rats and mice, he knew, were much more dangerous than cockroaches, however cockroaches were harder to exterminate. Given the volume of the noises he had just heard, cockroaches were not by themselves an adequate explanation, which meant rats were probably responsible. Kyle had been in rat-infested buildings before, and he knew where they tended to hide out, what they ate (mostly garbage) and what their implications generally were for the human inhabitants of any particular building.
After another few hours' sound sleep, Kyle awoke the next morning. As he ate breakfast, he recalled what Jennifer had said about also having heard sounds from the ventilation system. As soon as he was done, he called her on his PDA.
"Miss Zhang speaking."
"Hi, this is Kyle."
"Oh, good morning Kyle! Have a nice breakfast?"
"Yes. The automated kitchens here are quite good. Listen, I wanted to ask you something. Last night I heard more sounds out of the air duct in my room, louder this time. I'm certain there's something there, probably rats but I need to know for sure. Have you heard anything recently?"
"Actually, yes. I heard some noises last night as well, it's the second time I've heard them. It sounded like something was crawling through the air duct, but it must have been at least several meters back and it died out fairly quickly."
"I see. Listen, I need to find out what's in there and what kind of safety risk it poses. I'm going back to the health administration office this afternoon to see if I can get past that bi- that idiot of a secretary. I doubt they'll help me, though...which is why I've decided that tonight, I'm going to open up that ventilation cover and have a look in there myself."
"They say you're not supposed to go into the maintenance areas, though." said Jennifer, "They sealed them off for safety reasons."
"Well, I know a thing or two about safety. My guess is their main concern is that someone's kid might go in and get lost, or some moron might accidentally stumble in drunk and get themselves into trouble. Besides, I probably only need to go in a few meters, just far enough to find some rat droppings or something."
"I guess if you're set on it, then. But even so, wouldn't it be better to have two people? What do you say I come with you?"
"You, come with me?"
"Yeah! I mean, I want to set my mind at rest about this as much as you do. How about I come over there in the evening, we can have dinner together, and then after a few hours' sleep we can open that thing up and have a look inside. Going at night will improve our chances of finding what we're looking for, don't you think? And it'll be safer and easier with two people."
"But..." Kyle tried to think of a counterargument and failed, "All right then. We'll do that."
"It's settled then." replied Jennifer, "I'll come over at 6:30. See you later, Kyle!"
The apprehension of both the impending trip back to see the detestable health administration office secretary and the plan to check the ventilation duct (Kyle couldn't shake the idea of monsters out of his head) kept Kyle rather tense throughout the morning. Nevertheless, it didn't keep him from doing a thorough check of some residential areas, public washrooms and recreational facilities. His results were more or less consistent with what he had already seen, but it was still very interesting seeing how all the different parts of the darco had been designed. The whole weird, surreal feeling of the arcology's architecture tended to bring on strange feelings in Kyle's mind. Sometimes he perceived himself to be in a sort of giant human termite mound, with the people around him reduced to simply parts of a greater whole. At other times he felt that by being inside the darco, he was also in a sense inside Dante McCallavre's mind. It was as if the rest of the world need not have existed, only the building he walked through, and all of it conceived inside the twisted imagination of its eccentric architect. Whether Dante McCallavre had intended these kinds of impressions Kyle had no idea, but whatever the case, he couldn't help feeling a great deal of awe and respect for the man's architectural ability.
The dreaded meeting with the secretary drew steadily closer. By 3:35, despite having done a good deal of inspection as well as eating lunch, it still seemed to Kyle that barely half an hour could have passed since he had gotten out of bed that morning. Deciding that this was as good a time as any, he found an appropriate elevator and took it up to the administration offices. On the way up, he carefully thought over what kinds of verbal techniques to use against the secretary, while at the same time fervently hoping that she wouldn't be there this time.
His hopes were dashed when he opened the office door. Still resolute, he walked up to the secretary and said "I'm here about the pests."
"Weren't you here yesterday?" asked the secretary, "I told you, we don't have pests here. I don't have time to waste dealing with you."
"Well, if you don't mind me being just as rude about it as you are, you're just a secretary, and so as a safety inspector, I'm the one who doesn't have time to waste dealing with you. So tell me where I can speak with someone in charge so as we waste as little of each other's time as possible."
They eyed each other warily for an uncomfortable moment, then the secretary said coldly "Gerald Wolfe is in the room behind this one. Just ask for him."
"Thank you." said Kyle.
He walked around the front desk and through the first office, and an automatic door there opened as he approached. Behind it was another office, which struck Kyle as somewhat less neat than the other one but also more practical-looking. It gave the impression that things actually got done here, whereas the other one kind of looked as if it were just for show. Which it might well be. he reminded himself. He stepped into the room.
"Hi, is there a Gerald Wolfe here?"
"That's me." said a man, who was surprisingly normal-looking save for the fact that he was wearing a plaid shirt where everyone else had a business suit.
"I'm Kyle Harrison, can I talk with you for a minute?"
"Kyle Harrison...Kyle Harrison... You're the safety inspector, aren't you?"
"Sure. Just give me a chance to finish up here."
Whatever he was doing on his computer took under a minute to finish. When he was done, he got up and walked around to where Kyle was standing.
"Have a seat?"
"Thanks." they both sat down facing each other, "I'm here because of a concern of mine about the presence of some sort of vermin living in the building. I have reason to believe that there are pests in the sealed-off maintenance areas, and as a building inspector that's something I have to take into account in my evaluation. I tried to get in yesterday, but your front desk secretary was...not very helpful."
"Just between you and me," Gerald leaned in closer and lowered his voice, "I don't like her much either. But I'm not the one who chooses who gets that job. What did she tell you yesterday?"
"She just said that there aren't any pests in the building and that I was wasting my time here."
"I see." Gerald tilted his head and thought for a moment, then continued, "As rude as she probably was to you, I'm sorry to say that she's more or less right. We don't have any pests in this building. What makes you think we do?"
Kyle was naturally very taken aback at this. "I've heard some noises inside the ventilation duct in my bedroom. I'm in room 15806, the ventilation cover is to the side of my bed. Someone else I've spoken to also said they heard noises coming from an air duct in their room as well. And not machinery noises, animal noises...too big to be cockroaches or mice, I think it must be rats because I don't know of anything else that can live in there."
"Are you sure about all that? You know, no offense, but honestly, I think being inside this weirdly designed building has just made your imagination more active than usual. And as for the testimony of other residents, well, a lot of them really do believe in the 'monsters', so I wouldn't go trusting them too much if I were you."
"This wasn't a permanent resident, though. She's a scientist studying human behavior in the building, and she's only been here, what, six days or so. She doesn't believe in the monsters either, but she does agree she heard something in the ventilation system."
"Well, all right then. We'll look into it and see if we can find out anything."
"I'd really like an answer fairly soon. I plan to leave tomorrow or maybe the next day and give my report to the city officials, so can I have some information by then?"
"I really can't say. We're on a fairly tight budget and schedule, and almost all our resources are necessary to support the building's hospital. We only have the one, but it's got some decent facilities...I assume you've already checked it out?"
"No, not yet. I'll do that this afternoon. Then tomorrow I can compile everything I've seen, and fill in any gaps I might have left. But in the meantime, I'd like to see someone taking a look in the maintenance areas and finding out just what's living in there, because I really have to know in order to include it in my report."
"All right, I'll see what I can do. Tell you what, I'll phone you this afternoon and tell you what time I can expect to have some results. What do you think of that?"
"Sounds good. Thanks for your help, Mr. Wolfe."
"Glad I could help, Mr. Harrison...and sorry I couldn't help a little more. I tend to get a lot of things to do and I don't always have the resources to get them done. We do what we can, right?"
"Right. Talk to you later!"
"Have a nice day."
On his way out, Kyle shot another look of contempt towards the secretary, who ignored it. He was glad to have been able to deal through Gerald instead, but unfortunately he still hadn't really gotten a whole lot done- which only reaffirmed his conviction to check the ventilation duct out for himself. Tonight, he thought, tonight I'm going to find out what's really going on with this place.
The rest of the day seemed to pass somewhat more slowly. Inspecting medical facilities had never been one of Kyle's favorite things to do, and although this one was reasonably well maintained, it was still hardly an exception. On a positive note, it was arranged in a somewhat more intuitive and straightforward layout than the rest of the arcology, which made Kyle's job that much quicker and easier. It was also fairly brightly lit compared with the other areas, for obvious reasons, although the lighting seemed to have too much of a bluish tinge to it for Kyle's liking, and the ceiling was rather low. By the time Kyle had finished looking over the hospital and talking to a few of the staff, it was approaching time for Jennifer to come over to his apartment, so he took an elevator back so as to get to his apartment early enough. He could have let her in remotely using his PDA, but he felt it was more polite to be there in person.
At about 6:36, the door signaled that there was someone wanting to come in. Kyle got up and opened it.
"You're late." He smiled to make sure Jennifer didn't take him too seriously.
"I know." she replied, "I'm usually pretty punctual, but this building tends to get me lost really quickly. What's on the menu?"
"Whatever you like. I haven't made anything yet." He sat down at the table and Jennifer sat down opposite him.
"Not something with too much dairy or grain, they say that makes you sleepy and we'll need to be wide awake tonight. Meat and vegetables would be better...I'm up for stir-fry and rice if that's okay with you."
"Good enough. This kitchen must know how to make it."
It turned out Kyle was right, the kitchen could prepare a simple dish of this sort without any human intervention. It could also do it relatively quickly, and before ten minutes were up it delivered the food onto the counter. Kyle picked up the two plates and brought them over to the table. The food was very good, and both of them finished their servings off completely before they spoke again.
"Aaah..." Kyle leaned back and sighed, "That was good."
"Yep." Jennifer leaned on the table, looking down at an angle towards its surface, "You know, I think this kitchen does a better job than mine. I had a similar meal the second day I was here, but it wasn't up to par with this one."
"Actually, I think the kitchens are standardized."
"Well then, maybe it was just inferior ingredients. But this, this was good. The machines were in fine form tonight." She grinned.
"So, we've still got... When do you go to sleep, usually?"
"Between nine and ten."
"Same here. Even though we want to get to bed early, we've still got most of three hours to go before bedtime. Normally I'd simply work on my report, but that's no way to entertain a guest. Got any ideas?"
"I'd suggest a movie, but with our time constraints and wanting to be wide awake later I don't think that's a good idea. What games do you play?"
"I don't play games much, I'm usually too busy. But I've tried a few. What do you play?"
"StarCraft XXVI, Blue Tribulation II, Andromeda Gate, Warfire..."
"I've tried Andromeda Gate. I beat the original campaign in two weeks back in my last year of university, played a bit of multiplayer with my classmates but then after I graduated I kind of lost the free time for games, and I was never very good at them anyway. But if you want to give it a go..."
Time flies when one is having fun, and before long it came around to 9:00. Jennifer had gotten a better overall score by a narrow margin, mostly due to having more experience, but Kyle was better at more closed-in maps where reaction time was emphasized over aim. Finally Jennifer, noting the time, removed her headset and leaned back in her chair, smiling.
"Phhhhh... Time for me to brush my teeth."
"Yeah, it's getting late. About sleeping arrangements...as the host, I'm required to give up my bed, aren't I?"
"Only if I accept it! You take it, Kyle. I can sleep on the seating in the living room, it's curved so it'll fit me better than you." she paused, "Not that I'm implying anything! It's just that I'm shorter than you are, so it would be less of a bother for me."
"Do you insist?"
"Yes." she said, playfully but firmly.
"Very well then." he grinned, "Let's get our teeth brushed, I want to get as much sleep as I can before those rats or mice or whatever wake me up to go looking for them. I'll get you up too."
They brushed their teeth quickly, in silence. Kyle was done first, and although it was still fairly early for him to go to bed he felt quite sleepy. He set an alarm to wake him up at 3:00 AM in case the animals in the ventilation duct hadn't woken him up first. He then crawled into bed and dropped off to sleep.
The first thing he did when he woke up was to check his watch. 2:48 AM. He went over to the ventilation duct and listened, but couldn't hear anything above the dull background hum of the arcology and the rhythmic sounds of his own breathing and heartbeat. Quietly so as to avoid scaring whatever might be inside the air duct, he made his way to the living room and gave Jennifer a tap on the shoulder.
"Time to wake up." he whispered.
In another moment Jennifer was fully awake. "What time is it?"
"Not yet. Come on."
They both put on their shoes, and Jennifer went to get a flashlight while Kyle found a screwdriver. They both went into the bedroom and took a look at the grating on the air duct. In the dim light, they could make out the sign just below the grating: 'VENTILATION COVER - DO NOT REMOVE'.
"Well, here goes. I just hope they don't have an alarm wired to this thing." He inserted the screwdriver's head into one of the four screws and started twisting.
The screws had been put in hard, probably by machine. But with enough force Kyle was able to remove all four of them. He lifted the cover off slowly, tapped it on the floor to shake off any dust, then laid it on the bed. The open ventilation duct was pitch black inside, and looked like a gaping mouth. Turning on the flashlight, Kyle shone it around inside: The effect of seeing the bare, gray metal sides of the air duct illuminated in the flashlight beam gave him a sense of relief, as if the beam were pushing back the darkness that had seemed to almost be spilling out of the empty square in the wall. However, there was no sign of any animals.
"You want me to go first?" asked Jennifer, noticing Kyle's hesitation.
"No...I'm just a little nervous about it, that's all. I mean, if they sealed off the maintenance areas for safety, this does carry some risk, right?"
"Yes, but you're a professional safety inspector, you should know what you're doing."
"Yeah, I guess maybe it's just the creepiness of this building that's getting into me." Setting his jaw, Kyle crawled head first into the ventilation shaft. Jennifer followed him.
There didn't seem to be much to see. The ventilation shaft was quite bare, its walls interrupted every few meters by sets of screws holding it to whatever framework existed outside. The whole shaft also curved slightly to the left.
This went on for some 30 meters, then Kyle, who was still in the lead (it would have been difficult to turn around in the narrow ventilation shaft anyway), encountered a branch. To his left lay an opening to another duct.
"Jen, there's a branch here."
"Yeah, I see it."
"I'm going to go a couple meters past, then you take a look in it with the flashlight, okay?"
Kyle stopped a short distance past the branch, and handed the flashlight back to Jennifer.
"Not much." she answered, "No signs of any pests having been here. I'm going to go a short ways in, all right?"
"Go ahead. Don't go too far, though."
"Okay, I'm going in...not much to see..." her voice became slightly muffled as she went a bit farther, "Oh, here's something. There's another branch off this one, to the right. there's a grating lying on the floor just in front of it, and holes for screws, it looks a lot like the one in your room. I can't see any screws here, though, so this cover must have been taken off deliberately back before they sealed off the maintenance sections. You want to have a look at it?"
"That's probably a good idea."
"All right, I'm turning around now...I'm coming back..."
As Jennifer turned around, the beam of the flashlight illuminated the side of the air duct just opposite the entrance to the branch. It flickered back and forth, signifying her movement as she made her way back towards where Kyle was waiting.
Then suddenly, three things happened at once. Jennifer gave a short scream, there was a thud as the flashlight hit the floor of the tunnel, and the beam ceased its motion. There was a few seconds of scuffling sounds in the tunnel, then the beam went out completely, leaving Kyle in pitch darkness.
Kyle twisted himself over and scrambled for the place where he knew the branch led off. "Jennifer! What-"
There was a bang, and the blackness in front of Kyle's eyes seemed for a moment to be filled with little dancing points of white light.
When Kyle woke up, it seemed to be just an instant later by his perception of time, but the fact that the pain in his head was only a subtle throbbing told him that he must have been unconscious for some time. He felt for the button to illuminate the face of his watch and pressed it. His watch read 5:31 AM. He had been unconscious for about two and a half hours.
It was then that he noticed his surroundings. He was no longer in complete darkness, nor was he inside an air duct. In the dim lighting, he could perceive that he was in a relatively large room, surrounded by various pipes, wires and other components of the darco's machinery. The light he could see by originated from a few LED status lights on some wires, and some backlit dials and gauges on the pipes. No clearly defined roof was visible, but a tangle of pipes, reinforcing bars and metal grating prevented him from seeing farther up than about four or five meters above the floor.
He stood up, and immediately winced as a particularly nasty throb went through his skull. He recovered in a few seconds, and took another look around to see where he might either find Jennifer or at least get out of the maintenance section. Most of the entrances would be sealed from the outside, but if he could find one close enough to people, he could try to get some sound through so someone could hear him and let him out. In the meantime, he decided to call Jennifer on his PDA. He reached into his pocket- and found that the PDA wasn't there. So much for that idea.
"Jennifer?" he asked into the room around him. The sound was quickly stifled by the sound-absorbing metal and was lost in the background noise of the machines.
"JENNIFER!" he called again, as loud as he could. He waited a few seconds for a response. Still nothing.
All right, he thought, first things first. Where am I? There was no sign of Jennifer, nor was there any indication of where inside the building he might be. There were labels on some of the gauges and electrical indicators, but they had only useless messages like 'Tertiary power regulator 5200W' or indecipherable technical codes like '56C-N79.R4'. One idea would be to start destroying as many wires as he could and hope someone started noticing the failures in part of the electrical system, but he had no idea whether such changes would even be noticed before being taken over by backup systems, and at any rate, breaking high-voltage electric wires would be rather dangerous even if he was certain that doing so wouldn't shut off the air supply to the room and let him slowly suffocate.
Next question: How did I get here? Jennifer would have had no reason to drag him here, she would have taken him back to his apartment and called for medical support. And rats and cockroaches couldn't possibly move something as big as him, nor would they attempt to do so. They also wouldn't steal his PDA. The only reasonable guesses were that one, Jennifer had some very good reason for bringing him here and leaving him that he didn't understand, or two, someone else inside the maintenance areas had brought him here. This second idea made the most sense, because Jennifer hadn't had time to scramble back and knock Kyle out even if she did have a reason to, and it seemed at any rate that she herself had been hit as well, a moment before Kyle had. The chances were therefore highly in favor of there being another person in here who had malevolent intentions towards Kyle and Jennifer. In fact, probably more than one person, because Kyle was hit only a second or two after Jennifer, too quickly for Jennifer's attacker to get all the way to him and hit him as well.
Who, though? Well, whoever it was had to have had a good reason to risk seriously injuring Kyle and Jennifer by hitting them on the head. And given that no one was supposed to be in the maintenance areas in the first place, that meant that these people's reason was probably that they were doing something illicit in here that they didn't want anyone else to find out about. Most likely that meant trading and/or using drugs. The security guard Kyle had spoken to had said that crime was one of the main issues in the darco, but that most of it was not of a violent sort. Drug crime fit the bill perfectly, with the junkies and drug traders using these sealed-off maintenance sections as the equivalent of alleyways, train yards and the areas underneath bridges in a traditional city, somewhere they could do as they pleased without drawing too much attention. If this was the case, then Kyle had to be on the lookout, because these people might be back at any moment and if they found out Kyle was awake and trying to escape, they might use more deadly force than a mere knock in the head. It also meant that Kyle had to get out of here as soon as possible and alert the darco's security forces. Finding Jennifer would be an added benefit, since two of them would be much safer than one if it came to a fight and they would also know that each other were okay, relatively speaking.
The first exit Kyle spotted was another ventilation cover, high up on the wall but just low enough that Kyle would be able to pull himself up to it by means of some smaller metal pipes. It looked very similar to the one in his room, only it lacked the warning sign underneath it. However, without a screwdriver, Kyle had no way to remove the cover and get inside, rendering him about as able to exit by that route as by floating right through the ceiling.
The part of the room Kyle had been in initially was shaped like a square with one quarter taken out of it. However, the opposite end of the room turned again, leading from the dusty metal plating Kyle had been standing on onto a sort of metal catwalk. It had no railings, but the walls were so close that Kyle literally couldn't have fallen off if he had wanted to. They were covered by more pipes and wires, and in one place, two slowly rotating fans blew air out of a small ventilation shaft, through another metal grating. At the end of the catwalk, two yellow lights illuminated a small alcove with a metal door set into the opposite wall, surrounded by a border of black and yellow warning stripes. Beside the door was a switch, and as Kyle got closer to it, he could read the label 'OPEN/CLOSE' in raised while letters just above it. He pressed it down, and it sprang back up again as the door slid sideways into the wall on a set of metal rollers.
The first thing Kyle noticed about the room beyond was that it was better lit than the one he'd just been in. As he stepped into it, the second thing he noticed was that it wasn't really a room, but more of a tunnel, that led off in both directions. A rectangular metal sign on the tunnel wall just ahead of him read 'TR41 B12-32', and a bolt was missing from the lower left corner. Dim yellow lights were fixed to the ceiling of the tunnel about every two meters, and along the floor ran a pair of small metal rails. The rails were set more towards the opposite side of the tunnel, and Kyle hoped that there was enough space on his side for him to keep out of the way in case whatever vehicle used these rails happened to come along. Given that the maintenance areas were sealed off, that wasn't very likely...but then again, someone was in here, and maybe they would be using the railway. Kyle slid his finger along the rail, then looked at it. No dust. These rails had been used sometime within the past few months at most, maybe less.
He was about to call for Jennifer again when he remembered that he might not want to alert whoever else was in here of his location. Instead, he headed off down the tunnel in the direction that had initially been to his right. He had no idea which direction was really the 'right' one, nor what compass direction corresponded to which part of the tunnel, but the right-hand path seemed as good as any.
After walking for about 50 meters, Kyle came to a place where the tunnel ceiling, previously low and made of bolted metal plates, abruptly became much higher, and the tunnel itself significantly wider on both sides. This room was less than ten meters long and illuminated with some white lights on the walls, and at the opposite end the track continued on into a much narrower tunnel with no light at all.
At that point, a faint engine sound reached Kyle's ears from back in the tunnel, in the direction he had just come from. It grew louder, and it soon became apparent to Kyle that some sort of vehicle was approaching along the track. The tunnel had curved somewhat, so it wasn't until the sound was quite close that Kyle could see anything. A small, unmanned train engine riding on six wheels was running down the track towards him at a speed of about 25 kilometers per hour. As it passed him, he could see that a second car was attached to the engine, and that it carried on it some sections of metal pipe and what appeared to be a monkey wrench. There was no sign of any person on board, nor was there any space in the small train where a person could realistically be hidden, so evidently it was being controlled automatically by a computer. At any rate, it quickly vanished into the dark tunnel beyond, and the sound soon died away.
Looking around the room again, Kyle noticed that the only way out, aside from the two train tunnels, was a ladder leading up the wall on the left-hand side of the track. He stepped over the track and put his hand on one rung of the ladder. Then he stopped.
From above him, a slight metallic bonging sound could be heard. Looking up, Kyle could just make out a catwalk made of metal grating, about three meters above his head and running directly over the rails in the room. Squinting into the darkness, he thought he saw for a moment the glint of light on an eye, peering down at him through the holes in the grating. Then there was some more bonging, sounding as if someone were running away along the catwalk. This sound, too, quickly grew silent. But whatever it had been, Kyle was sure it wasn't just a rat. It had to be bigger than that, to make a sound of that sort. A human was the only other plausible thing that fit the bill. If it was Jennifer, surely she would have noticed and recognized Kyle and come down to him. Evidently it was someone else. And that meant that whoever was in here, whatever criminals engaged in their illegal activities in these maintenance areas, now knew that Kyle was conscious and aware of their presence. This was dangerous, and Kyle decided that while they held the upper hand, diplomacy might be his best bet.
"Anyone there?" he called out, "I don't want any trouble! I just want to get out of here, I won't bother you!"
He listened for a reply. The only answer was the dull, constant hum of the millions of cubic meters of machinery all around him.
Wishing he still had a flashlight, Kyle mounted the bare metal rungs of the ladder. It led right up to the catwalk above the room, and there was a ledge where Kyle could climb from the ladder onto the grating of the catwalk. As his eyes got more used to the darkness up in the top of the room, he could see that the ceiling was composed mostly of more metal pipes, along with some electrical wires and two large ventilation covers facing down at him from among the pipes.
At the end of the room that corresponded to the narrow, dark tunnel the train had gone into, Kyle found that the catwalk ended at a metal door that simply refused to budge. Checking the other end, he found that the catwalk led into a narrow, dark hallway with a floor made of metal covered in the classic 'diamond pattern' to keep people's feet from slipping on it. Feeling his way through the darkness, he made his way along this hallway. He came to a corner that turned right, followed up by two more corners that turned left, spaced about evenly apart. After the last corner, he found himself in a part of the tunnel that was lit up, in this case by a single incandescent lightbulb that hung on a cord from the ceiling. This bulb illuminated an open doorway at the other end of the hall. Glad to have some light, and seeing no other way out, Kyle headed for the doorway.
He was just about to reach the place where the lightbulb hung when he saw a dark shadow flicker in the darkness behind the doorway, accompanied by another glint of light off a pair of eyes, which this time Kyle was certain he saw. Then both the shadowy form and the eyes vanished, and a moment later the metal door slid down from the ceiling with a clang. Kyle just had a moment to notice a button set on the doorway before the lightbulb went out, leaving him in total blackness.
Luckily for him, the tunnel was entirely clear up to where the door stood, so he reached it fairly easily. After a few seconds of frantic searching he also found the button, and pressed it. He couldn't help sighing with relief as the door obligingly opened. Although the lightbulb in the tunnel did not go back on, the next room appeared to have some dim lighting of its own. It was a large room, the largest he'd been in since waking up, and was lined with metal walls on which were randomly spaced metal panels bolted onto the wall behind. There were also a few more pipes; Kyle was getting pretty used to pipes by now. In the middle of the room was a sort of engine encased inside a box made of metal bars, with a door on one side. It would have looked a bit like a jail cell if it had been empty. The door was shut with a padlock, and the engine was apparently turned off as it made no noise and the visible wheels and belts were standing still. On the floor just in front of the door into the 'cell' lay a screwdriver.
Kyle looked around more closely at the walls. Two of them had doors in them, one a mechanical door like the ones he'd seen before and the other a more conventional door with a doorknob. The one with the doorknob merely led into a small, dark closet with nothing inside save a few plastic buckets and a roll of electrical wire on a large plastic spool. The mechanical one had a number pad set into the wall just to the left of it, and a digital display that read 'ENTER ACCESS CODE'. Kyle had no time to stand around guessing thousands of access codes for hours, so instead he picked up the screwdriver (it might make a handy weapon in addition to its normal use as a tool) and started going around near the walls to see if there was a panel he could remove and get out of this room. If there wasn't, his next option would be to backtrack all the way to the rails and then go the other way down the tunnel.
He was about halfway around when he heard a metal sliding sound. His screwdriver raised, he spun around just in time to see the mechanical door slide into the ceiling and come to a stop with a clang.
It took a fraction of a second for this to sink in. When it did, Kyle crossed the room (as quickly as he could considering that he had to go around the 'cell') and practically dived through the door. Then he stood on the other side, his heart racing. Thinking back, he realized that the door could just as easily have closed and pinned him down, but he had been too anxious to get through to think straight. In any case, the door seemed to be staying open.
Kyle was in another dark tunnel, something like the one that had led up to the room with the engine, but with some subtle differences. It was less tall, not quite so dark, and the floor was smooth and a bit dusty. A couple of pipes and some wires ran down the wall. On Kyle's right facing in the direction he had been going through the door, the tunnel pinched off into a very narrow space just large enough for the pipes to go through. On his left, the tunnel continued on into the darkness.
Feeling his way with the screwdriver, he made his way along the tunnel, which gradually curved to the right. After the first 30 meters or so of darkness, the tunnel was lit by white light strips that ran along the left-hand wall and the ceiling (the right-hand wall had the pipes and wires on it). Not too long after that, he came to a small round room lit with more white lights. There was a mechanical door leading out to his right, but it was locked with another keypad. The floor also had a round hole large enough for a person, with a ladder leading down it. Kyle started descending the ladder slowly, keeping an eye out below him.
At the bottom, he found himself simply inside a huge cylindrical tank. It was oriented on its side and there was a strip of water running down the lowest part, about five centimeters deep in the middle. Some small pipes led off both ends, but they were only a few centimeters wide. Deciding it would be safest to get out before some machine turned on and filled the tank up, he climbed back up the ladder into the round room.
He looked at the door. The door almost seemed to look back in sullen defiance. It read '02D-A70', and the two zeros almost looked like eyes facing towards him.
"Damn it." he said, and turned around. He could make it back to the first door leading to the traintracks within about ten minutes. That was too long for his liking, but unless this door opened on its own like the other one had, he didn't have much choice. He started heading back.
Feeling his way again after leaving the lighted part of the tunnel behind, he kept an eye out along the tunnel for the doorway on the left, which would let some light in and thereby reveal its presence. He had gone about 30 meters when his hand on the right-hand wall touched a variation in the metal. Feeling it, he made out the rectangular shape of the door, and he could also feel the end of the tunnel just beyond, where the pipes ran into the thin crevice in the wall.
His skin suddenly seemed to go cold. He was locked in. The doors at both ends were shut, there was no way to force them open, and he was stuck in here with no way out. Hoping for a miracle, he rushed back along the tunnel, bumping into the curved wall a few times before reaching the lighted portion and then the round room. Indeed, the door was still closed. Horrified, he sat down and stared at the unyielding door.
It was a bit ironic, actually. Ending a career as a safety inspector by being trapped and killed by the very building he had been inspecting. And it would be a slow, painful death, too. He wouldn't die of thirst, not with a good many liters of water in the metal tank below him. He would die of hunger, and that could take a full week, if he was lucky. The door sat impassively before him, the digital display next to it shining the six green underscores that marked where the numbers would go. A million possibilities. If he could guess numbers for a week, he'd have to guess an average of one number every 1.2 seconds, 24 hours a day, even to get half a chance of getting out. Six presses per second. There was no way he could manage that speed. It would literally be a gamble for his life, and one he wasn't likely to win.
Then suddenly he stood up, smiling. Screwdriver in hand, he crossed the room to the door. Reading off the door, he carefully pressed in '024170', looked at it for a moment, then pressed the 'Enter' button.
The door stood still. The digital display blinked 'Access denied' for a couple seconds, then flashed back to the six underscores.
Feeling even more defeated after his failed attempt, he sank to the floor and closed his eyes. A minute later he opened them and stared at the door again. Why was he waiting at this door, anyway? He should be waiting at the other door, because after all it had opened for him once before, even if it closed again a few minutes later. It would be a longer trip to get a drink of water, but nothing serious. He got up and started down the tunnel.
Partway down the tunnel he stopped. He thought for a moment. Then he turned around and went back to the room. Approaching the keypad, he pressed in the digits '020470', looked at them for a moment, then slowly pressed the 'Enter' button.
The door slid into the ceiling.
"YES!" he shouted, punching the air in triumph before scrambling through the door as quickly as he could. Only after he was safely through did he stop and ponder for a moment why whoever had set the code had used graphical similarity instead of alphabet positioning, or indeed, why they had used such an easy code in the first place. But he only pondered this for a moment before turning his attention to his new surroundings.
He was in a large, rectangular room about 30 meters wide, with a ceiling about four meters high. Some dim lighting came from a few light fixtures on the opposite wall. A set of two more miniature railways ran from separate tunnels in one of the other two walls to two more tunnels on the other, and they were connected by a section of track and two switches. The lights on the opposite wall flanked what seemed to be some sort of control panel, covered in buttons and large switches with warning stripes on them, as well as a couple of blank computer screens and some various dials. Above the train tunnels to his right, a low catwalk accessible by a ladder on the far end ran along against the wall and up to yet another tunnel leading into the darkness. And to the left-
As Kyle turned back to the left, he noticed some movement. In the dim lighting, what looked like a dark figure scrambled into the farther of the two train tunnels. For the moment Kyle could catch a glimpse of it, it appeared about the size and shape of a small person, but its movement didn't look like that of a person...more in the fashion of some kind of monkey or insect. A moment later it was gone, and Kyle could hear footsteps as it retreated down the tunnel.
"Who are you?" he called after it, "Hey, stop! Who are you?" He listened for a reply, but the only reply he got was the echoes of the figure's footsteps, which quickly died away.
Still opposed to the idea of creeping down the train tunnels due to the possibility of being run over by a train, Kyle soon decided to make for the only other way out, which was the tunnel on the top of the catwalk. He crossed the tracks, quickly so as to make sure he couldn't be hit by surprise, then climbed up the ladder (there were only five rungs) and onto the catwalk.
He was about to enter the tunnel when he heard a sound of machinery, which seemed to be coming from below him. A few seconds later, a small unmanned train ran out of the tunnel closer to the wall with the control panel, at high speed. Kyle could see that it wasn't the same one he had seen earlier in the other room, although its overall design was fairly similar. It crossed the room quickly and vanished into the same tunnel where the figure had been.
A few seconds after that, there came a screech of metal brakes. Then, a short while later, Kyle saw the train back out of the tunnel, moving quite slowly this time. The switch behind it shifted over according to an electronic command, and the train ran over onto the track just below where Kyle was on the catwalk. The other switch shifted over, and the train accelerated forwards again and vanished into the other tunnel.
Now that's interesting. Apparently whoever that had been escaping down the tunnel had had some way of remotely operating the train and getting it to stop and then go back and take the other track. Either that or someone else controlling the train had done so. In any case, it showed that whoever was in here, they knew how to operate the trains, and were using them for some purpose. And of course, if Kyle got himself caught inside a narrow train tunnel, they could just as easily command another train to run him over as they had instructed this train to stop. More determined than ever to stay off the tracks- and to get out of this place as soon as possible- Kyle raised his screwdriver in front of him and started into the tunnel that led from the catwalk.
The tunnel had many turns in it, corners every few meters where Kyle had to feel where the wall was and carefully go through the area where it wasn't. After the first couple turns it become completely dark, the kind of absolute darkness in which even depth perception no longer works, and the 'edge' could just as easily be hundreds of kilometers away or just in front of one's eyes.
Worse yet, after going some distance down the tunnel, Kyle began to hear noises ahead of him. At first it was the sound of feet stepping softly on a metal surface. Then this started being accompanied by a voice of some sort, a kind of chittering that sounded nothing like any human speech Kyle knew, but was too deep for a rat. Some sort of machine designed to scare rats away? As soon as he thought it, Kyle knew it was just a pathetic attempt on the part of his brain to try to comfort him from the unknown. The honest fact was, he really had no idea what was up ahead of him making those noises.
Eventually Kyle saw some light ahead in the tunnel, enough to see the silhouette of his screwdriver when he put it in front of his face. After the next turn, he could see the exit, an opening into yet another dimly lit room. What was more, there seemed to be some kind of activity in the room; something in there was casting flickering shadows around and causing the footstep noises he had been hearing, although the voices had stopped. Deciding he at least wanted to know what kind of situation he was facing, he scrambled ahead through the tunnel. He emerged just in time to see a pair of dark figures disappearing up into a tangle of pipes and metal reinforcing bars that made up most of the ceiling and opposite wall. Like the one in the last room, they seemed to be the size and shape of small people but moved more like insects, and he caught a glimpse of light reflecting off a pair of eyes before the figures vanished. A few more clangs followed as whoever they were escaped through the maze of pipes, an then some more even footsteps indicated that they had reached some other tunnel and were retreating down it.
"Hey, you!" Kyle shouted after them, "Come back! I need your help! I need to get out of here!" he paused as the last of the footsteps died away, "Aw, damn it."
He knew he would be much slower going through all those pipes than the figures had been, if he could even fit himself through at all. Instead, he looked around and was glad to see a door leading out the right-hand side of the room and a switch next to it. At least it wasn't another keypad! he thought as he pulled the switch down. The door slid into the wall and he stepped through.
He found himself in a tall and relatively well-lit hallway, with a few wires and small, silver-colored pipes running down the side. Its floor was made of metal panels with small, round holes punched upwards, looking a bit like a grater. Inside the hallway, to one side of the door, stood a glass box attached to the wall, with a fire axe inside. A better weapon! Kyle quickly broke through the glass with his screwdriver, which he then pocketed in favor of the axe. It was a bit heavy, but it would be much more effective than a screwdriver in a fight, and he might also need it to break through some kind of barrier.
The hall led both ways, and Kyle decided to try going to the right first. After walking a good 50 meters or so, he came to yet another door, which luckily again had a switch instead of a keypad. The lights that ran along the rest of the tunnel ended several meters back from the door, which had its own yellow lights shining on it from each wall. Kyle stepped up to the door and flipped the switch. It opened, and he stepped through.
He had been expecting to step into a clear, still room on the other side. Instead, he found himself face to face with...something. He gave an involuntary yelp and stepped backwards as the figure in front of him stood still for a split second, then jumped away and was swallowed up by the darkness. Unfortunately, his ankles collided with the metal frame of the door, and he fell backwards into the hallway behind him, only barely managing to brace himself with his hands as the axe fell to the floor with a horrible clang. The bruise on his head, which he had been mostly ignoring up until now, gave a nasty throb as he hit the floor.
Jumping to his feet as fast as he could and snatching up the axe, he stepped back through the doorway. He was no longer considering calling after the figure in an attempt to get help. He hadn't had time to register it then, but the light shining in from the hallway had been bright enough to illuminate part of the thing. And the thing...hadn't looked human. Its eyes had been pale yellow, and a faint sheen on parts of its form suggested that, rather than cloth or bare skin, it had been covered in- Kyle's skin seemed to go cold as the words went through his head- shiny dark fur. And as it had turned and jumped away, the shadows gave the impression of an extra limb, or a tail.
The monsters. As he thought of it, Kyle was amazed that he hadn't remembered sooner. The words of the factory worker went through his mind as he stared into the dark room beyond. 'No one really knows what they look like, some say they're like giant spiders...I think maybe they're really construction workers who got sealed inside and the chemicals mutated them into horrible shapes...' They had moved something like spiders, and their forms had seemed to be humanoid. What if they were mutated construction workers? Kyle's rational mind knew it shouldn't make any sense biologically, but after what he'd just seen, anything seemed possible. 'Officially they don't exist, of course. The government always likes to cover these things up, you know?' Both the health administration office secretary and Gerald Wolfe had firmly declared that 'we don't have pests here'. But what if they knew, and were just covering it up? It would be hard for them not to know about something like this.
Kyle shook his head in an effort to clear it. He still wasn't sure of any of this. He knew there was something in here; that much was certain. But the other traits he had seen, they could have just been the dim lighting playing tricks on him. Most likely, the figures he had seen were just junkies in here to safely buy and use their drugs, and they were used to the layout and the darkness, and had just fled when Kyle approached. Maybe they were young adolescents, perhaps orientals, as they had appeared significantly smaller than Kyle. The voices he had heard could simply have been them talking, and it had sounded weird after passing through the curved tunnel. At any rate, the more he let the idea of real monsters scare him, the more he would have trouble thinking straight, and that couldn't lead to anything good. He took a breath as if preparing to dive into water, and stepped farther into the dark room so as to feel around for some kind of exit. An exit had to exist; the figure he had seen couldn't simply have vanished into thin air.
Before long he discovered an open door, roughly on the opposite side of the room of where he had come in. The tunnel it led into was pitch black, but Kyle felt his way with his fire axe and before long he reached a door with a doorknob. It opened, and Kyle was glad to see that the next room had some light in it. He had heard increasing machinery sounds as he had gone along the tunnel, and when he entered this next room, it was clear why.
He was standing on a narrow catwalk with rather stereotypical red railings. Around him were dozens, even hundreds of wheels, gears and pulleys, connected to all sorts of axles and chains. They ranged in size from the width of Kyle's hand to wider than he was tall. Only some of them were visibly turning, but those were generating quite a bit of noise on their own. Ahead of him, the catwalk widened out to form a little square area of metal grating, and on the wall which this attached to were a door and a large control panel. Some yellow lights hanging on wires from a ceiling some unknown distance above in the blackness illuminated the whole scene.
Kyle walked past all the huge gear systems and up to the door and the control panel. It was then he noticed that to his left, just out from the door, there was a ladder leading up to another dimly lit catwalk, about four meters farther up and farther to the left. After taking note of it, Kyle turned his attention back to the door. It was mechanical, but had no switch or keypad of its own. Kyle looked at the control panel. The switch must be somewhere on there...if there's a switch on this side at all. There had better be! He read the labels on all the switches that had labels, but again they were mostly just either not very descriptive or had complex technical codes, and the door had no code on it at all to match them with.
At that moment, a loud metallic bang reverberated around the room. Kyle spun around, gripping the axe in both hands. On the catwalk in front of him was...a creature.
It looked something like a large monkey. Its fur, which covered it from head to foot, was clean and shiny black, and its eyes, staring at Kyle, were pale yellow. It would have been about 150 centimeters tall if it had been standing upright, but at the moment it was crouching down, and a tapering tail, also covered in short black fur, was curled around its right-hand side. Although the tail and the fur gave it a very monkey-like appearance, both its feet and its face looked uncannily human, and Kyle had certainly never seen anything like it before.
The two of them stared at each other in silence for almost a full second. Then Kyle gave another yelp and pressed himself backwards against the control panel, axe raised, while the creature turned around and ran for the open door that Kyle had come through earlier. It ran kind of on two limbs and kind of on all four; it never actually used its hands on the floor of the catwalk, but rather to propel itself along by gripping the metal railings, and achieved an astonishing speed. Its tail, which it held up behind it a little off the floor, was perhaps slightly more than a meter long, and about five or six centimeters thick at the base. Within a few seconds the creature had completely vanished into the darkness of the tunnel.
For some time Kyle simply stood, staring into the gaping tunnel that the creature had vanished into. After half a minute or so, his brain reengaged. A torrent of half-formed thoughts flashed through his head, but before he could consciously recognize any of them for what they were, they all fell into place and formed one single, powerful concept that stamped itself across Kyle's mind.
The monsters. The monsters are real.
Kyle blinked, and shook his head to try to clear it.
The monsters are real.
It was a very strange feeling. Up until now, Kyle had been in circumstances which, if hostile, were at least understandable. He had known, more or less, where he was, what was going on and what he was doing. That was no longer the case. The sight he had just seen had been a kind of revelation, totally turning his understanding of his situation upside down. The reality he now consciously faced was totally different from the reality he had until a minute ago more or less taken for granted. He was used to the idea that things like this only ever happened in movies or books, and in an effort to somehow dispel the illusion, to wake up from the dream, he looked around him at the rest of the room. It was still perfectly real and solid. What has happening to him was real. It was happening in the real world. It was happening right here and right now. Kyle's mind, which he had always thought so open-minded and prepared for change, was having trouble wrapping itself around this weird new reality.
And yet, the more he thought about it, the more the pieces it fit in. All the figures he had seen before, that he had told himself were people...they weren't. Or at least, not so long as these creatures were not people. But Kyle wasn't sure of that either. After all, if they were the ones who had been running the trains, if they were the ones who had left the screwdriver in the room with the engine, if they were the ones who had systematically attacked Jennifer and Kyle and had switched off the flashlight, then they had to possess a lot of intelligence, more intelligence than any monkey or ape ever had. What were they, though, and where did they come from? Kyle wasn't very experienced in the field of zoology, but he certainly had never heard of any animal like this before. Were they mutated construction workers, like the guy in the factory had said? Kyle knew enough biology to be sure that didn't make sense. A result of genetic engineering? But genetic engineering had been banned for some 60 years. But surely they couldn't be a feral species already present on Earth that had found its way into the arcology, because Kyle should have heard about them, and the arcology's administration should have discovered them and taken measures to get them out of the building. There was nothing that really fit the bill...and yet, Kyle knew for a fact that the creatures existed, for he had seen them clearly with his own eyes, and he was pretty sure he wasn't insane.
At any rate, he had no real way of finding out what was going on with the monsters right now. His most immediate goal was still to get himself out of these maintenance areas and back to safety. After that was done, he needed to find some way to rescue Jennifer (assuming she hadn't gotten out on her own by that time), and then go immediately to Paul Duke and ask him what was going on here and why he, as a safety inspector, had not been informed of the monsters' existence.
Turning back to the control panel, Kyle started pressing all the most likely-looking switches. After accidentally shutting off a few of the gears and turning other ones on, he got lucky on the fifth try with a large, unmarked switch. The door slid into the ceiling, and, after making sure to check that there were no monsters on the other side, he stepped through it.
On the other side was a set of stairs leading up. Although entirely used to stairs, Kyle wasn't used to seeing stairs in the darco, where altitude changes were almost always accomplished by either smooth slopes or elevators. On the other hand, the maintenance sections definitely seemed to be more rigid and geometric overall than the inhabited areas were, so perhaps stairs weren't too unusual in here. This particular staircase was made of metal and was quite long and steep, and was lit with bright red lights on the ceiling that gave it the feeling of some kind of fire escape. Kyle made it up without too much difficulty, and the door at the top opened automatically upon sensing his presence; the first door of that type Kyle had encountered.
Unfortunately, it merely led into yet another part of the darco's machinery installation, not back out to the living sections. Fortunately, there were no monsters in it. Strangely enough, some pipes that ran down one wall of the rather dark room did not seem to be in working order, and in fact sections of them were missing. Checking around on the floor, Kyle found several sections of pipe stacked up against the wall, along with a wrench and a pair of pliers. For a mechanical system that was said to be highly reliable, and that had been sealed off for years, this area seemed distinctly unfinished. Some part of the design that they had decided not to use? No, that couldn't be it; Paul Duke had said that Jonathan Larralee had required them to use Dante McCallavre's exact design, but Kyle had studied some of McCallavre's work back in university, and he knew that McCallavre would never have wasted a whole room like this, even in a building as large as the darco. Besides, whoever left the room unfinished wouldn't have just left perfectly good tools lying there.
Then Kyle realized. The room wasn't really unfinished per se, rather it was in the process of being repaired. Repaired by the monsters.
After the screwdriver, these were the second and third tools he'd seen just lying around. He also knew that some of the small trains were running, that they were carrying cargo, and that the monsters were controlling them. Repairing pipes could be well within their capabilities, and it made a lot more sense, given the existence of the monsters in the first place, than that this was simply an unfinished room with abandoned tools and pieces of piping lying in it. Perhaps these creatures were a bigger factor of the darco environment than Kyle had initially thought.
Luckily for Kyle, the room had an exit on the opposite wall, as well as an open ventilation duct in the wall which was on his left coming in (the pipes were on the right). After pocketing the wrench and deciding regretfully that the pliers probably wouldn't be worth their weight, he opened the other door and went through into the next room. He would have liked to have gone through the air duct, since he knew that the air ducts were more likely to reach back to the living areas, but without a flashlight it was simply too dangerous in there. Hopefully I'll find a flashlight in here somewhere so I can navigate the ventilation system and get back to... Kyle shuddered as the word 'civilization' automatically went through his head.
Up until now he hadn't really appreciated the full scale of the darco, and of the substructure areas. There were literally millions of square meters of floor area to cover, and Kyle had no idea which way, if any, would lead back to the inhabited sections. Or rather, the sections inhabited by actual humans, rather than monsters. Kyle didn't know just what fraction of the total maintenance area was accessible to the monsters, but it could easily be just about all of it, since all the maintenance areas had to connect in order to service all parts of the building.
The door out of the room led into yet another hallway. This one was reasonably well-lit had several doors on the side, and most of them were simple doors that opened by handles, which was a relief to Kyle because it meant that with more forks for him to try, he was less likely to be in a total dead end. He decided to try the doors going clockwise, which meant starting with the one right at the far end, which was on his right when first entering the hallway. It led into a room quite similar to the first one he had been in, at least in terms of lighting and style, but was somewhat larger and different in shape. Aside from another air duct, it had one other exit, a large double door situated on about the only wall of the room that was clear of pipes and wires. The round LED button to the side of the door suggested to Kyle that it probably led into an elevator, and upon pressing it he discovered this to be correct.
Unlike the elevators that serviced most of the human-inhabited sections of the arcology, which had a keypad for entering one's destination stop, this elevator merely had one button for each stop, like elevators tended to have in smaller buildings. There were only six stops, but that was still a lot considering that Kyle had been traversing a more or less linear path up until just recently. The lights on the buttons indicated that he was currently at the second stop, so he decided to try the stops from the bottom up, and accordingly pressed the button for the first stop.
Unfortunately, the first stop was just a small room full of electrical equipment, and had no other exits large enough for Kyle to even fit into. The third stop was even stranger: Upon arrival, the elevator doors opened against a totally solid wall of metal plating, barely two inches from the outside of the elevator door. The fourth stop was Kyle's first success with the elevator, opening onto a dim tunnel with a low ceiling and some wires hanging against the wall. On the opposite end of the tunnel was a small mechanical door.
Reaching the door, Kyle noticed that it again had a keypad. It also had a code painted on it, reading '45Z1.E2'. Remembering what had worked back at the other door with a keypad and a code, Kyle entered '452132' on this keypad. It worked. Why, though? Maybe the monsters had been the ones who had set the codes for the keypads- surely no person would be so lax with security as to make the codes match the numbers painted on the doors- and maybe they weren't aware of the english alphabet which was why they used pictographic resemblance rather than letter positioning for the codes.
As he stepped through the door, Kyle stopped in mid-thought as he became consciously aware of his new surroundings. The room he was in was unlike any of the rooms he had been through before.
First of all, it was enormous, perhaps 50 meters in width and length and over 30 meters in height. The lighting was dim, and the small amount of white light that was present emanated from some fluorescent tube lights situated far above in the ceiling; pipes, wires and air ducts running below them blocked out some amount of the light and gave the whole room an eerie ambience. A couple of rotating fans cast shifting shadows on parts of the floor, and Kyle could hear the irregular sounds of water drops hitting the metal floor. Hundreds of pipes, some of them up to a meter in diameter, ran up the walls, and against the opposite wall were situated two enormous metal tanks oriented horizontally, each one some ten meters in diameter and 15 meters long, connected at the inside ends and with huge pipes leading out from the outside ends, one going up into the ceiling and the other running down into the floor. In front of the tanks was what looked to Kyle like some kind of garbage or other debris, and he decided to take a closer look.
As he came closer, the things just under the tanks looked more and more like some kind of piled garbage...until he came close enough to actually make them out, whereupon it became shockingly clear that this wasn't garbage at all.
"Oh...my...god..." he breathed slowly. Lined up along the bottom of the huge tanks was a row of what appeared to be blankets and tarpaulins held up by various plastic or metal poles. In some places, cushions and blankets lay on the floor or against the tanks, while in others lay tools, pieces of metal or plastic material, and even boxes of food, mostly bread and dried-out fruit. Most of the cloth and plastic sheeting was also partly torn or stained, and looked like something salvaged from a garbage bin. In a couple spots, small spigots had been attached to the huge tanks and sealed with metal plates covered in bolts, apparently to provide water to the inhabitants of these shelters.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kyle saw some irregular movement. He jerked himself quickly around, ready to use his axe if the need arose. Two more monsters were slinking backwards out of the light, away towards a tangle of pipes that ran up part of the wall. The one more in the front appeared almost exactly the same as the one he had seen before, save that this one was holding a pair of wire cutters, but the other one was different, and apparently female; its chest was adorned with a pair of breasts, which like the rest of the creature were covered with black fur. One of its arms was around something...a smaller creature. A baby. It looked almost exactly like the adults, only it was no more than about 40 centimeters long, but nevertheless strong enough to cling to its mother while it stared at Kyle with its yellow eyes. A few seconds later the two adults reached the pipes, and scrambled up them into the darkness above, using not only all their free limbs but also their prehensile tails. Once there, they seemed to be joined by yet another shadowy figure before they all vanished.
Holy shit, Kyle thought, these things have almost a whole little civilization of their own in here. And what's more, they're breeding. There could be hundreds of them in here, they seem to be just about all over the place, but they also seem to be even more scared of me than I am of them. It doesn't look like they're going to show me the way out, either, given that they probably hardly ever enter the living sections themselves anyway, and are also faster at getting around in here than I am. It looks like I'm still mostly on my own.
The next thing Kyle did, while being careful to watch his back for any monsters that might decide to attack him, was to go through the tools present in this little 'monster village' and take along whichever ones might be useful to him. He also noticed as he approached the shelters to get the tools that the tanks radiated some amount of heat, which apparently meant they contained something warm, probably water given the presence of the spigots attached to them. It made sense that the monsters would deliberately put their 'village' right up against a source of warmth, especially as he hadn't seen any of them wearing any clothes to keep them warm. Unfortunately, there weren't many useful tools available, especially given his limited carrying capacity; both the screwdrivers he found were inferior to the one he had already, and although he did manage to find a monkey wrench to replace his single-size wrench, there were no other tools that seemed useful enough to take along. However, before leaving, he also had a drink of water from one of the spigots. The water was quite warm, but much better than no drink at all, and Kyle still felt refreshed afterwards.
The big room had two other doors leading out of it aside from the tunnel door he had come through, as well as one train tunnel without any door. However, Kyle couldn't use the train tunnel for safety reasons, and neither of the other doors' switches did anything when he pulled them, so he eventually went back to the tunnel and then to the elevator. The elevator car was no longer on that floor, but it came down when he pressed the button on the outside, and the door opened.
Once inside, he was about to press the button for the fifth stop when he noticed that the button wasn't there. Or rather, it was there, but there was a solid metal plate bolted on top of all six buttons. That certainly wasn't there before! Could this be a different car? No, that didn't make any sense to have multiple cars on a small elevator shaft like this. The monsters must have bolted the metal plate on top of the buttons after he had exited the car; they had certainly had plenty of time in which to do it. But why? Did they want to keep him trapped in here? At any rate, getting rid of the plate wasn't too difficult with his monkey wrench, and Kyle soon had it off the wall and on the floor of the elevator car. The buttons underneath were still in perfect working order, and he pressed the one for the fifth stop.
After having pressed it, he carefully bolted the plate back on, although with only two out of the original six bolts, and both of them loose. The other bolts he put in his pocket. Hopefully that would deter the monsters from further tampering with the buttons and possibly trapping him by stopping the elevator from working. Then he stepped out of the elevator.
It didn't take long for him to figure out where he was. He was on a metal catwalk, suspended some 20 meters above the same big room with the tanks. Above and to the sides of the catwalk hung a loose tangle of metal pipes, as well as a few ventilation shafts. And ahead of him...
...ahead of him on the catwalk were two more monsters. One of them, in fact, seemed to be the same one he had seen farther down in the room, the male holding the wire cutters. The other one was also male, and the female and its baby were nowhere to be seen. He had a hard time making these ones out in the darkness, but the wire cutters had shown for an instant against a portion of lighted wall as the creature was waving them around. Both creatures slowly advanced, and started chittering loudly at Kyle. The one in the back was holding a tire iron, so they were both in a sense 'armed'.
"Whoa, wait a minute, I don't want trouble..." Kyle knew they probably couldn't understand him, but he hoped the tone of his voice would get them to be less aggressive. On the contrary, they approached even closer towards him. He decided to switch tactics.
"Get back! GET OUT OF MY WAY!" He stepped forward, holding up his axe in a threatening manner. The creatures stopped chittering and stared for a moment, then, apparently deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, fled the other way down the catwalk and then leapt into the pipes beside it, where they disappeared. Hoping they wouldn't try to sneak up on him from behind, but listening carefully in case they did, Kyle made his way forwards along the catwalk.
Fortunately, the monsters didn't try to attack him from behind while he wasn't looking. Unfortunately, the only other door leading off from the network of metal walkways was yet another door with a switch that wouldn't respond. Annoyed, Kyle made his way back to the elevator. The plate over the buttons had not been tampered with, so he took it off and pressed the button for the sixth stop.
The sixth stop opened onto yet another tunnel. This one was fairly wide, and although it was bare on the floor, the ceiling was covered in more pipes and wires. It was lit fairly well, although Kyle did notice one light fixture that wasn't working. He started making his way along it.
It was quite long, and to Kyle's discomfort, at times he thought he heard the sounds of monsters following him in the darkness up above the pipes overhead, but couldn't quite be sure of it against the background hum. He looked back several times, but never actually saw any movement. Fortunately, he reached the end of the tunnel without incident. Either there weren't any creatures following him, or they had decided not to attack him for the time being. The tunnel ended in another doorway, but this time the door was simply sitting open. Kyle stepped through it.
He had only just done so when it clanged shut behind him.
Kyle looked all around the doorframe, but couldn't find any way to open it back up again. He could try unbolting it piece by piece, but that would take a lot of time and effort, and he wanted to use all his time and effort as productively as he could. Accordingly, he turned back to examine the room he was now in and see if there was another way out.
The room was small, and quite dim, but after Kyle found a light switch and switched it to the 'on' position, the overhead lights lit it up brighter than just about any room Kyle had been in so far. It appeared to be a sort of control or monitoring room, because it had almost nothing in it aside from a set of dials and gauges and a table with two computers on it. Luckily for Kyle, there was also another door. Unluckily, when he pressed the switch next to it, nothing happened.
Well, there was nothing for it. He was going to have to undo the bolts on the door he'd come through and try to make his way back. That was the better one to try, he thought, as it appeared to have fewer bolts on it. Laying down his axe, he got his monkey wrench and began methodically taking off the 18 different bolts that held the doorframe in place.
None of the bolts were stuck on tightly, and it took him less than ten minutes to get them all off. Thinking of time reminded him to look at his watch, which now read 6:55 AM. After undoing all the bolts, he pried his side of the doorframe off enough to get his fingers underneath the edges, then lifted it off and propped it against the wall. This revealed the four bolts at the top of the door that held it to the two metal shafts that moved it up and down. He removed these bolts, and, finding that the door was too heavy for him to lift safely, he stood to one side and tipped it out of the doorframe. It fell with a crash on the floor, leaving a gaping hole that opened onto the tunnel he had just come through.
Only, it wasn't a tunnel. The first few meters were the same, but then it simply ended, hitting a solid wall of welded metal plates without a single bolt to be seen.
What the fuck? How did that get there? It wasn't a door, because as he had been coming along the other way Kyle hadn't noticed any breaks in the floor, yet this thing extended right down into a gap in the metal floor panels. No, this was a more or less permanent wall...and one that Kyle had apparently just walked through less than ten minutes ago without ever noticing it. But that was ridiculous. There had to be another explanation. And the only other explanation he could think of was that the monsters had actually fastened this wall in place while he was in the room.
But the weird thing was, that fit. The monsters had previously bolted the metal plate over the elevator buttons in order to restrict Kyle's movement through the arcology, and although he had gotten through that without too much difficulty, the monsters had apparently stepped up their game. Kyle was going to have to keep his wits about him if he intended to escape from this place.
Turning back to the other door, which was now the next easiest means of escape from this place, Kyle happened to notice that one of the computer displays was on, judging by the orange LED just below it. He went over to that computer and wiggled the mouse, and the screen popped into existence. There were a number of icons on the desktop, including 'Computer', 'Trash', 'Leak Diagnostic 2.0.1', 'Internet Explorer' and 'Doors'. Ah. Kyle selected 'Doors', and a window came up showing a list of door codes, a column showing 'Open' or 'Closed' for each door and another column showing 'Manual switching disabled' or 'Manual switching enabled'. Some of the 'Manual switching disabled' items were grayed out, and Kyle assumed that those were doors with no manual switch associated with them. Naturally, he pressed the 'Toggle' button for every closed door in the entire list (which was only 56 items long and couldn't possibly have represented nearly all the doors in the arcology). On the eleventh button he pressed, the door to the room he was in opened, but he made sure to open them all before leaving the room, in order to reduce his chances of having to deal with more closed doors.
The next room was a small, square room with a closed door on one side (apparently it hadn't been covered by the list on the computer) and a ladder leading downwards through a square hole in the floor. Kyle climbed down the ladder and found himself in another dimly lit hallway, which he followed.
He had only gone along the hallway about 20 meters when he came to the end, or at least the end of where it was traversable; the floor panels had been removed ahead of him, leaving a hole three meters long that opened into total blackness. Beyond the hole, the hallway could be seen leading to a set of stairs, which led up to an open doorway. Unfortunately, with essentially nothing on the walls or ceiling to hold onto, Kyle wouldn't be able to climb across the hole safely. He turned around and headed back. Approaching the ladder, he placed his hand on one of the rungs and looked up into the square shaft he had just climbed down.
To his horror, he saw that it no longer opened onto the room above. Yet another metal plate had been placed over the hole at the top of the ladder. Climbing up the ladder, he pushed upwards on the cold metal. It was totally unyielding.
"Shit, shit, shit!"
Kyle climbed back down the ladder and headed along the tunnel again. He went right up to the hole and tried to get a good idea of its length, then went back a few steps to get a running start. He ran up to the hole and jumped into the air.
He made it, but without much to spare; his chest and arms landed on the floor on the opposite side, with his legs dangling over into the blackness below. Silently giving thanks to Dante McCallavre for not putting a smooth floor on this particular tunnel, he dragged himself up and onto the metal plates on the opposite side. He stood panting for a while, then began walking towards the door at the end of the tunnel.
The doorway was still open, and Kyle stepped through it. The room on the other side wasn't very bright, but there was enough light for Kyle to see a dark figure scamper towards another door on the opposite wall and through it into the darkness beyond. Keeping a firm grip on his axe, Kyle plunged in after it. In the dim lighting, Kyle could make out that he was in another tunnel, and his ears told him that the creature was moving off to the right. He turned and ran after it, hoping that it might lead him towards some way out of this whole nightmarish place.
The tunnel wasn't very long, and pretty soon Kyle reached the end, where there was a door on his left. The door was closed, but it opened when Kyle pressed the button next to it. He stepped through it into the next room, which had significantly better lighting than the tunnel, but was still quite dim by Kyle's standards.
The room was very large, with possibly even more floor space than the room with the monster 'village', although the ceiling was for the most part lower. There were also fewer pipes around, but ahead of Kyle there was a huge, square pit in the floor, and two large round pipes facing down into it like two open mouths. Kyle couldn't see the bottom of the pit from where he was standing, so he walked forwards to have a closer look.
He was expecting the pit to be empty. And for the matter of that, most of it was empty. But down in one corner, the corner on the far right from where Kyle was standing, he saw one of the creatures.
It was sitting on the floor in a kind of crouched position, with one arm folded up in front of it, but Kyle could see enough to know that it was female. It was cowering back against the corner of the pit, looking up at him in what looked like terror. Why hasn't it gotten out already? Kyle looked around the pit and saw that it was completely bare; there was no ladder, not even any notches in the walls. This creature had apparently fallen in accidentally and hadn't been able to climb back out on its own. Maybe some of the other creatures would come along and help it out later, but right now there were none to be seen. Kyle shrugged and started turning to leave.
Kyle whirled back around towards the creature. It had moved forwards slightly, but was now sitting still again, trembling with fright. It stared at Kyle, jerked its head to face up towards the side of the pit, then turned back to stare at Kyle, still trembling.
Wait...what was it looking at?
Kyle looked up at the spot where the creature had glanced before. Just above the side of the pit there was a metal post with a dial and a small digital display. Kyle couldn't read the digital display from where he was, so he walked around the side of the pit, glancing at the monster occasionally to make sure it wouldn't surprise him somehow, and up to the post. The dial was resting at 0 on a scale of 0 to 4 meters, and the digital display read 'ATTENTION: Coolant drain scheduled for 7:20 AM. Please keep reservoir clear. Avoid skin contact with coolant at all times.'
Kyle checked his watch. It read 7:12 AM.
In eight minutes, a valve somewhere in one of those pipes hanging over the reservoir would open, and hundreds of cubic meters of poisonous blue liquid would pour down into the reservoir. Whether or not the creature knew how to swim was irrelevant; the deadly coolant fluid would already be eating away at its flesh, and it would be impossible for it to survive.
Kyle's watch changed to 7:13.
Glancing around, Kyle tried to find something, anything, that could be let down into the pit to allow the creature to climb out. The floor was rather bare, but in one place on the wall there was a rotating wheel with a metal chain around it that ran off into a slot in the wall. Walking up to the wheel, he took out his monkey wrench and jammed the head between the chain and the wheel, then stepped back to get out of harm's way. The wheel drew the head of the wrench in a few centimeters, then the whole system stopped for a second or so while a muffled grinding sound from the wall indicated that some machine was straining to move the chain, and finally one of the chain links snapped. The wheel stopped, the monkey wrench fell on the floor, and the chain began to slowly be ejected out of the slot in its entirety.
There were only about six meters of chain, but that was enough. Kyle carried it over to the side of the pit and tied a bowline around the post with the dial on it, then tossed the rest of the chain into the pit. The lowest meter or so of it made a loud clatter as it hit the metal bottom of the pit. The creature glanced at it, then back at Kyle, but didn't move.
Too scared of me to climb out? "Fine, have it your way." he muttered, turning away. While he had been fetching the chain he had seen a small door hidden near some pipes in one corner of the room, so that was his next destination. Hopefully the creature would overcome its fear and climb out before the next five minutes or so were up and the coolant was dumped into the pit, but in any case Kyle had no more time to waste on rescuing monsters, even if they were going to die horribly otherwise.
The door led into another dark hallway that went on for some distance, with several twists and turns. Kyle was getting rather annoyed at having to feel in front of him every step of the way by the time he reached the end. He emerged into a small room with metal grating for its floor and ceiling and a few more pipes running vertically across one wall. Another small door on the opposite side of the room stood open, showing a narrow staircase leading downwards. Kyle descended it, and was almost unsurprised when the door slid shut behind him. After going through another short hallway with various wires and hoses leading down the sides, Kyle emerged into a larger, curved tunnel with a single pair of rails leading down the opposite side and a series dull yellow lights attached to the ceiling and spaced out every two meters or so. On the wall opposite him was a metal sign that read 'TR41 B12-32'.
Agh...deja vu. I hate that. Kyle closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again. Strangely enough, it didn't help. Worried, he checked for the bolt on the lower left corner of the sign. It wasn't there.
Shit. This isn't deja vu. I have been here before.
But how was that possible? The last time, he had come out of the original room he was in by means of the only available exit, through a hallway with a metal grating on the bottom and some fans in the wall, and out a door into the side of the train tunnel. This time, he had come down a set of stairs and along a totally different hallway, and yet had emerged into exactly the same place. What was going on here? It wasn't realistic that there would be two signs with exactly the same code in different places. But at the same time the monsters clearly hadn't moved the sign, because unlike the rails, it had a layer of dust on it that certainly hadn't been disturbed within the past few hours.
Kyle shivered involuntarily. It felt to him as if the arcology was playing tricks on him, as if it were a living, thinking structure that could twist the space inside itself into invisible wormholes leading between any two points it wished. Kind of like that underwater city in the Cthulhu movies...only this is real.
But no, that was silly too. There had to be another explanation. Maybe there really were two signs. Or maybe- Kyle checked his watch, it read 7:21 AM- maybe an hour and 50 minutes was enough time for the monsters to actually rebuild that whole tunnel and alter where it led to, or with respect to Kyle, from. It was a strange idea, but Kyle had been seeing a lot of other strange stuff, and with enough monsters and enough tools on the job, it wasn't that implausible for them to pull something like this off. And besides, Kyle already knew that the monsters modified stuff; he had seen the taps they installed on the water tanks, he had seen the metal plates they bolted over the elevator buttons and over his escape routes, and he had seen them holding the kinds of tools that would be appropriate for these sorts of jobs. Replacing a whole tunnel would not have been easy, but Kyle's well-refined sense of engineering told him that such things could be done, if the right people (or in this case, the right creatures) were doing them.
What next, though? If he went right, he would just be retracing his steps, and that didn't sound very productive. He didn't know what lay to the left, but considering there were rails coming from that direction, it had to be more than just a dead end. He started walking down the tunnel, as close to the side as possible in order to keep out of the way in case another train came along.
The tunnel on this side was longer than on the other side, but with the bare floor and the adequate light level it was quick walking and Kyle reached the end fairly soon. Unfortunately, the track again simply ran into a narrow, dark tunnel where Kyle could not safely go for fear of being run over by a train. However, there was also an open doorway leading off to Kyle's left into another tunnel, which he followed.
After traversing this tunnel for another 50 meters or so, Kyle reached a metal door that blocked his way. There was a switch beside the door, but it didn't seem to do anything, and judging from the fact that it didn't even light up the light above it marked 'open', Kyle reasoned that the wiring in it had been disconnected. He was just about to turn and head back down the tunnel when the door opened, apparently of its own accord.
The first thing he noticed was the light. What seemed like blindingly bright light streamed into the tunnel from past the door, totally drowning out the dim fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. After Kyle's eyes had adjusted for a few seconds, he could see that the light was all coming in from a end to the tunnel, a few meters farther on. He took a few steps forwards, and as his eyes adjusted further, he saw what the source of the light was.
It was the sky.
He was standing in an open doorway facing out the southern side of the darco. All around and below him, the huge, black, ribbed face of the darco sloped downwards and away. More than 600 meters down, the cars running along the highway leading towards the arcology looked like ants, and even tinier specks on the paths of the darco's parkland represented early morning joggers getting their daily exercise before going off to work. Now, at last, Kyle could orient himself. He knew where he was with respect to the interior of the building and with respect to his room (which was about 300 meters away through the darco's structure), he knew that his watch was accurate, and he had a much better idea of where to go to try to get back into the darco's human-inhabited areas. Unfortunately there was no way for him to descend the exterior of the darco, as its smooth metal side afforded virtually no handholds and without an incredible stroke of luck he would surely fall to his death if he attempted it. He would have to find another way out of the maintenance sections.
Luckily for him, just inside the portal was another mechanical doorway, leading towards the east. This one opened when he pressed the switch beside it, revealing yet another dark corridor, which curved towards the left as it ran, leading farther back into the darco's structure. Well, nothing for it. I've enjoyed the view long enough, time to get back to business. Kyle took one last look at the bright, clean outside world and then started into the new tunnel.
The tunnel went on for quite some distance and curved by apparently over 60° by the time he came to the end. After going down a short flight of metal stairs, Kyle found himself face to face with another door. He pulled the large switch situated next to it, and was relieved when it responded by sliding into the ceiling. He stepped through, subconsciously expecting another room or tunnel on the other side. Instead, he was jarred to his senses as he found himself dropping into space as tubes and lights flew past around him.
He hit something, hard, but in a good falling position that prevented any serious damage. For a minute or so he lay with his eyes closed, waiting for the throbbing in his head bruise to subside. Once it was no longer bothering him too much, he opened his eyes and sat up.
His first impression was that the walls were moving upwards. That's what it looked like, at any rate: The four walls of the room he was in were covered in vertically oriented wires, metal pipes and fluorescent tubes, the latter of which gave cold, bluish tinge to the whole seen. More pipes, wires and lights seemed to be rising out of the bottom of the wall on all sides and heading upwards. Upwards into...
Kyle traced them up and his eyes widened at the sight. The view was not nearly as vast as the one from the side of the arcology, but it was still pretty impressive. He wasn't in a normal room at all, but rather an elevator shaft, which ran upwards for more than a hundred meters before curving out of his line of sight. The doorway he had fallen through was already about 50 meters above him, and moving farther up by the second. Clearly, he was currently sitting on top of one of the arcology's elevators, which was descending the shaft. If it had not been just below him when he had stepped out of that door, he would have been a smear of red goo on the wall by now. A close call...too close for comfort.
However, it did provide him with what could be a quick way out. His axe had fallen beside him on the elevator roof, so he picked it up and started tapping on the metal roof with the head. Tap-tap-tap, tap, tap, tap, tap-tap-tap. Morse code for 'SOS'. Anyone inside the elevator ought to hear this and press the emergency stop button.
But the elevator didn't stop. It kept right on going. Evidently there was no one in it. Worse yet, it might not be an elevator for people at all, it might just be one of the industrial cargo elevators, in which case no one might be inside it for hours no matter how many times it went up and down, since it would be loaded and unloaded by machines. From the roof, there was no easy way to tell the difference.
Deciding to change tactics, Kyle stopped tapping with the axe and instead bent down close to the roof and yelled "STOP THE ELEVATOR!" It still had no effect, nor could he hear the sound of anyone moving around or doing anything inside the elevator. There was no way for him to stop the elevator either, at least not safely and without a lot of smashing through metal with his axe.
At that moment he heard the sound of a mechanical door. It was hard to tell where it was coming from because of the way the sound bounced around the elevator shaft, but it was clear enough that it had to be coming from above. Kyle looked up. About 15 meters above him, a door had opened in the wall of the elevator shaft, the opposite wall than the one he had entered through. A moment later, one, two, three dark round heads with yellow eyes poked over the ledge, staring down at him.
"Hey, you, down here!" he called up to the creatures, "DOWN HERE!"
The creatures looked at each other and chittered a bit, then vanished. The door closed. After several seconds it opened again. One creature poked its head out this time, and stared at Kyle for a moment.
"Not gonna help me, are you?" he asked, addressing the air around him as much as the creature in the doorway.
The creature cocked its head, then vanished again momentarily before reappearing with something in its hand. It stretched out its arm as far as it could into the elevator shaft and dropped whatever it was holding.
Kyle dodged to one side as the object came plummeting down towards him. It hit the roof of the elevator with a flop. As soon as it had stopped moving, Kyle could see that it was in fact a coil of gray plastic rope. In fact, two coils of rope: Two separate ends lay on the elevator roof, each one leading around a few spirals before going up into the space above and up to the doorway, where the creature was still looking at Kyle.
"What the hell am I supposed to do with..."
The creature made some motion near the base of the doorway, shifting one of the hanging ropes up and the other one down. Aha. They're the same rope, two ends of the same rope. And that means...
Kyle didn't have much time; both the coils were slowly unwinding into the space above him as the elevator continued to descend. He grabbed one end of the rope and quickly tied a knot around his axe, then snatched up the other end and tied it around one of two smooth metal handles that extended out of the top of the elevator. Thank goodness for those handles! He was almost out of slack now. Grabbing the axe by both ends of the handle, he waited for the last of the coiled rope to be unwound and braced for the shock to his hands. Thank goodness for having done my arm exercise, too.
The slack vanished. The elevator pulled down on the end that was tied to it, causing the end with the axe, and Kyle, to rise up through the elevator shaft at the same rate. In only about two seconds it was lifted up from the roof of the elevator to the farthest up Kyle could reach. He held on tight, and although the shock was bad, it wasn't as bad as he had expected. The powerful elevator mechanism kept moving downwards, and Kyle was lifted free of the elevator roof and up into the air in the elevator shaft. The trick now was to keep his grip for the 30 seconds or so it would take for the axe to be pulled up to the level of the door. Looking upwards, Kyle was just in time to see the creature vanish back into the doorway, leaving behind only the sliding plastic rope.
The rope was hanging from the doorway, so Kyle tended to fall towards the wall that the doorway was on, and had to keep kicking himself away from the wall with his feet, hoping he wouldn't swing back and crash into one of the fluorescent tubes. He managed it, somehow, and he also managed to hold onto the axe for the time it took for the rope to be pulled up to the doorway. Then he let go of the axe and hauled himself up into the tunnel leading off the elevator shaft. The axe, still tied to the rope, swing around a metal valve the rope was looped around and back towards the doorway; Kyle tried to grab it and yank it out of the knot, but he was too late and it fell into the shaft, hitting the elevator roof far below with a horrible clang. Now Kyle was unarmed. On the other hand, considering that one of the creatures had apparently just done something deliberately to help Kyle rather than hinder him, maybe the need for self-defense wasn't as great as he had assumed.
The tunnel he was in now was quite dark, but seemed to be mostly bare down the middle. It turned out not to all that long either, although it had two turns in it that served to block most of the light getting through from each end to the other. At the opposite end, Kyle emerged into a rather more well lit room, something like the room he had been in before with the generator and the screwdriver. The only other doorway was closed and had a padlock on it, but there was also a ladder on the opposite wall that went up through a square hatch in the ceiling. As Kyle's eyes came to rest on the ladder, another creature poked its head down through the hatch. To Kyle's surprise, the creature extended one arm and beckoned to him with its hand, before vanishing up into the room above.
The floor that the hatch went through was rather thick, and with good reason considering that on top of it was another train room, with sets of rails that led off into no less than three of the four walls. One of the small train engines sat on one section of rail, with one car attached behind it, an empty flatbed. Glancing around, Kyle also saw the creature that had beckoned to him; it was standing up on a raised platform on one side of the room, on the front of which there was a sort of control panel covered in buttons and switches.
"Okay, what now?" Kyle asked, too weary of the monsters messing with his brain to bother being aggressive.
"Ngya!" The creature, which Kyle could now see was a female, pointed towards the train.
"What about the train?"
The creature pointed to Kyle, then back to the train.
"You want me to get on?"
The creature waited, motionless save for the slow curling and uncurling of its tail. Kyle looked around, and saw that aside from the train tunnels, the only other way out of the room was a metal door in the opposite wall.
He folded his arms and scowled at the creature. "Why should I trust you?"
The creature reached down behind the control panel and lifted something up. Kyle squinted at it, trying to make it out against the creature's dark fur. It was a mechanical chain, sort of like a bicycle chain. Actually, it was a bit too large to be a bicycle chain. It looked more like a chain used for some kind of engine. In fact, it looks kind of like the chain...that I used...to drop into the coolant pit...
"Holy shit..." Kyle breathed slowly, "You're not...you're not the creature from the reservoir, are you?"
The creature didn't seem to understand him. It gestured towards the train again.
"Um...let's see..." Kyle pointed to himself, mimed tying a knot and throwing the chain, then pointed to the creature and mimed climbing the chain. The creature looked at him intently, then- Kyle was caught rather off guard by this- it smiled, while nodding its head.
I still don't know whether to trust it...but I've been running around in here for over two hours now, and this thing knows the place a lot better than I do. I guess I might as well give it a try. He stepped forward, took a deep breath as if he were about to plunge into cold water, and climbed onto the flatbed car.
The creature pressed a couple of buttons on the control panel and pulled a switch. Then it leapt up into the pipes leading up behind the platform, and smiled at Kyle once again before vanishing into the dark tangle of pipes near the ceiling. A moment later the train engine began slowly accelerating along the track towards one of the dark train tunnels, pulling Kyle along with it on the flatbed.
The tunnel was pitch dark and the train had no lights save some small status LEDs, but Kyle could at least tell which way it was turning by the acceleration, and it turned a lot over the next minute or two before emerging into a wider, lit tunnel and slowing down to a stop. Kyle got off, and after a few seconds the train started off down the track again and out of Kyle's sight. A moment later, a door on the side of the tunnel opened and the creature (or at least Kyle assumed it was the same creature, although he had no idea how it gotten there so fast, it must have known a shortcut he couldn't take) peered out and beckoned to him. He followed it into the doorway, which led to another hall parallel to the one with the rails.
Well, I guess I'm just being led around for the moment. I sure hope this thing knows what it- what she's doing. The creature kept a cautious distance from Kyle as he followed it along the corridor, up another small flight of stairs, around a couple of corners and into a large but rather bare room. Then it stopped and listened for a moment before pointing to a certain door on the opposite side of the room, which was one of two doors he could see aside from the one he had just come through.
Kyle pointed at himself and then at the door and raised his eyebrows to indicate a question. The creature smiled and nodded again, then scampered off towards the other of the two doors and vanished into it.
Kyle crossed the room and opened the door the creature had indicated using a switch mounted on the wall just beside it. To his surprise, the room beyond was very small and had no other exits. In fact, it was pretty much just a bare metal cube with a door and a light on the ceiling and a portion of the floor set down a few inches with a crack in it.
It took Kyle a few seconds too many to figure out what an inset portion of the floor with a crack in it meant. Before he could step back off, the trap door in the floor opened up and he fell into a pit of blackness.
Evidently he was in a chute of some kind, and luckily, a chute with a slope that gently curved from vertical to horizontal. He slid down the chute without banging anything too hard, and before he knew it he shot out the end and landed on a diamond-patterned metal floor. He was able to stop himself with his hands before he fell on his rear, and quickly got up, brushed himself off and looked around.
He spun around as fast as he could. Jennifer Zhang was standing in front of him. Her clothes were a bit ruffled and dirty, but otherwise she didn't appear to be any the worse for wear.
"How the hell did you get here?" they both said. The synchronization was perfect.
After waiting a few seconds, Kyle said "Long story. After I woke up, I spent more than two hours wandering around this place before arriving here."
"Only a little over an hour for me. I guess I woke up after you did. Plenty long enough to learn some things, though."
"You mean...the creatures?"
"Yeah. I only caught glimpses of them for a while, then about fifteen minutes ago, three of them armed with tools deliberately chased me into that little room at the top of the chute and I guess another one was available to trigger the trap door mechanism."
"Any female ones among them?"
"Can you tell the difference?"
"...in that case, no. Maybe some of the earlier ones that I didn't get a close look at, maybe, but none of the ones that chased me in here. Why do you ask, though? Do you have some sort of perverted fascin-"
"NO, dammit! No, I mean, I'm asking because...oh, where do I start? I used a machine chain to rescue one of the creatures, a female, from a coolant reservoir. I didn't see her for a while after that, but just the past ten minutes or so she's been kind of, well, leading me. I thought it was okay to trust her because I had saved her life, but then she sent me into the room with the trap door and...well, I feel a little betrayed. And a lot stupid. Um, what are you looking at?"
Kyle looked up where Jennifer was pointing. The room they were in was actually a lowered pit in a larger room, and up on one side of this larger room was a narrow glass window with a small but well-lit control room behind it. A creature was looking down at them through the window. As Kyle watched, it held up the chain for him to see.
"That one! That's the creature I saved from the coolant pit."
The creature put the chain away again, then pointed to Kyle and Jennifer and made a lifting motion over its shoulders with both hands.
"What's it trying to tell us?" Jennifer asked.
"Beats me. Wait..."
"This lowered area is too deep for either of us to climb out on our own, but if one of us lifts the other up, we could make it."
"Yeah." Kyle stepped over to the side of the pit and crouched down, putting his hands over his shoulders with the palms up, "Put your feet there. I can hold you."
"Wait, let me take my shoes off first." she quickly undid her shoes, "There we go." she put her feet in Kyle's hands and he carefully, slowly lifted her up the side of the pit.
"Can you reach the top?"
"Yeah, got it." she pulled herself up.
"Here you go." Kyle tossed the shoes up, "Now, can you reach down and get me?"
"Yes, there's a door here with a handle I can hang onto." she paused, "Got it. Okay, grab my hand. And...lift!"
Between boosting himself off the floor with his feet and being pulled up by Jennifer, Kyle managed to grab the top edge of the pit and heave himself up onto the floor up above. While Jennifer put her shoes back on, Kyle turned to see what the creature would do next. It was still in the window, and it flashed him another smile before vanishing into a door in the back of the control room.
The door Jennifer hand been hanging onto was open, so they went through it. It led into another hallway, which they followed for a while before coming to a ladder that led up into a round hole in the ceiling. Jennifer climbed up first, and Kyle followed here. At the top was a small, round room with three doorways, all of which were closed.
Kyle went around and tried all three door switches. None of them worked. "Okay, now what?" he asked, as much to the air around him as to Jennifer, whose presence he hadn't quite gotten used to yet.
"I saw another door back in the room with the pit. The pit extend to the wall on both sides, but we could drop back down into it and cross it on the other side and go through the other door. If the switch on that one worked, that is. In any case, staying here isn't going to be very productive."
One of the doors slid into the ceiling.
"Can I take that back?"
"Sure." Kyle grinned, "Now let's go, before it decides to close again."
After passing through the doorway and traversing yet another tunnel, they found themselves in a small room with metal plates on its walls, and with an air duct as its only other exit. Luckily for them, the cover on the air duct was open.
"An open air duct!" exclaimed Jennifer, "I spent most of an hour looking for one of these."
"Over two hours, here. I'll go first, all right?"
"That's probably best."
The air duct wasn't as dark as Kyle had expected. This was mostly because a few meters along it, a shaft forked off and went up for several meters, before terminating in a grating with a fan and some blue lights above it. The fan was slowly turning, blowing air down into the tunnel they were in. There was no way for them to climb up the shaft, much less get through the grating and the fan blades, so they continued along the tunnel they were already in.
Several meters farther on, they reached a ventilation cover, which Kyle quickly removed with his wrench. The cover fell away from them into another bare concrete room. One the three lights on the ceiling was flickering, something Kyle had so far not seen in the darco, even in the maintenance areas.
"This doesn't look like an inhabited area." said Jennifer.
"Let me check the ventilation cover." Kyle turned the cover over, "Yeah, see, no warning sign on the bottom. Looks like we're still not out. And there weren't any other forks back there in the air duct either, I checked carefully."
"This room has a door, though."
Kyle crossed the room and tried the switch. The door opened, leading into a tunnel which appeared to be made mostly of the same kinds of concrete as the room. Some pipes ran down from the ceiling and then along the right-hand wall. The two of them started down the tunnel, which was almost silent save for the sound of their footsteps and the ever-present hum of the machinery around them.
After going around a couple turns, they came to a place where the tunnel widened out, and the right-hand wall was occupied by a large lower section of what was once a water tank. Pipes ran out from both ends of the tank section, with one of them turning and going into the wall while the other one, which pointed in the direction Kyle and Jennifer were going, ran straight into a section of wall that extended out to be perpendicular to it. A label on the pipe read 'W244-1 A27'.
"Why just part of a water tank?" Jennifer asked.
"You're asking me?"
"You're the engineer."
"Actually, I don't think this tank was originally built this way. The creatures in here must have scavenged it for metal plating to use elsewhere."
"You mean to say they take apart and rebuild the machinery in here?"
"As far as I know, they take apart and rebuild everything. I saw a whole tunnel that they had rebuilt in about an hour and a half, and a wall they put up in a tunnel behind me, and lots of other stuff. As far as I know, the maintenance areas themselves may be shifting, dynamic structures, and the human-inhabited areas might not be built into the building so much as 'float' on a flowing 'ocean' of constantly rebuilt substructure."
"That... I mean, you have the weirdest ideas." she paused, "After what I've seen so far, though, I'm inclined to believe just about anything. But for the time being, we need to get out of here. Let's go."
They walked a bit farther down the tunnel, then down a long, wide set of concrete stairs with metal railings on each side next to the wall. At the bottom, the tunnel took another turn to the right and widened into a room. A heavy metal door was situated in the opposite side of the room, and a sign on it read 'MAINTENANCE DOOR. OPEN IN EMERGENCIES ONLY.'
"'Maintenance door'?" asked Jennifer, "Does that mean it leads out of the maintenance areas?"
"It might. But I don't see a switch, and there's no way I can move that thing myself."
"Wait, what's this?" Jennifer stepped across the tunnel. In the side of the tunnel was a glass window, beyond which was a small control room with a set of electronic panels covered in buttons and lights.
"Control room. The maintenance areas have these rooms with electronic control devices for taking care of the machinery in that area."
"Yeah, but why is it...fuzzy?"
Kyle bent closer. Jennifer was right; everything inside the control room looked fuzzy and slightly distorted.
"Is it an effect of the glass?" she asked, "It makes it look like the room is full of water."
"Look up there." said Kyle, pointing towards the ceiling of the control room. Two huge pipes opened into the room, one from each wall. A sign on the side of one of the pipes read 'W244-1 A21'.
"That's a lot like the sign near the tank section. But the pipes don't seem to connect, it just opens into the room and..." she trailed off.
"The room is full of water." Kyle supplied, "It seems that the creatures, wanting the metal from the tank and from the connecting pipe in there, decided they didn't need the control room for their purposes and so converted the control room itself into a water reservoir in place of the tank. That's why the tank isn't overflowing."
"Do you think... Do you think the control room might have a switch for operating that maintenance door?"
"It's highly probable. But we can't get in."
"So close and yet so far, huh?"
They stood in silence for a while.
"Just how long can you stay underwater for, safely?"
"I'd say maybe three and half maximum. Minutes, I mean. Probably less than three if I'm being active. Why?"
"The pipe leading off from the tank is wide enough for you to fit through. This pipe here is the same size, so it probably stays the same size all the way along. Do you think you could swim through the pipe and pull the switch for the door?"
"It's awfully far to swim from the tank. And the pipe must go down somewhere as well. There could also easily be a grating inside the pipe that would prevent me from going through."
"Then you could turn back, and we'd be no worse off than we are now."
"Aside from me being all wet."
"True, true. But wouldn't you agree that getting out is more important?"
"This may be our only chance. It's impossible to read the switch labels from here, but once you're inside you should be able to make them out and find the one for that door. I noticed that the water level was below the top of the pipe leading from the tank, if I'm right that means you'll be able to breathe up to the point where you have to go down vertically. That gives you about four meters of vertical pipe and eight or nine meters of horizontal pipe to hold your breath through each way, along with the control room itself. If you're quick, you should be in and out in about two minutes. If you don't think you can do it safely, then-"
"I'll do it. You're right, I've had enough of this place, and your figure for the time sounds about right."
"Shall I stay at the pipe exit in case something happens, then?"
"No. Stay here, with your wrench ready, and watch for me to come through. If I signal you with a thumbs down, or fail to appear after three minutes from when I leave you here, smash the glass window so the water can drain out, then go for help because I probably won't be able to get back through the pipe with no water in it. Otherwise, wait 30 seconds after I reenter the pipe, then head up to the tank and wait there."
"See you in a minute!" Jennifer headed off back up the hallway.
As he watched the control room through the glass window, the next two and a half minutes seemed to Kyle to take an eternity. At the 2:44 mark according to his watch, Jennifer's feet appeared out the pipe (she had evidently chosen to go feet first, which made sense), followed by the rest of her body. She was wearing only a bra and underwear to substitute for a two-piece swimsuit; she must have left her other clothes behind, not just for them to be dry when she came back out, but also so they couldn't snag on anything in the pipe.
Kyle watched as she swam over to the control board, scanned it and pulled a switch. Kyle noticed that the maintenance door didn't open, but from her vantage point Jennifer couldn't see it. She swam back to the pipe and disappeared into it, head first. Kyle counted off 30 seconds on his watch, then made his way back to where the tank was located.
A few seconds later, a splash back in the pipe indicated that Jennifer had surfaced, and shortly after that she emerged from the pipe and stood up hip-deep in the tank water. "Is it open?"
Kyle shook his head.
"Well, I noticed another switch that could be it...I didn't want to try them both at once, in case they cancel each other out or something. Go back down to the window, I'll try this again."
"All right. If this one isn't it, though, I don't know what we're going to do."
"We'll think about that when the time comes." She got back down and slid herself into the pipe.
Kyle left and walked quickly back to the window, where he waited for another minute and a half or so before Jennifer came out of the pipe. She swam back to the control board and pushed another switch, and this time the door opened. Then she turned around and went back to the pipe entrance. Her head had just entered the pipe when Kyle heard a low machine noise start up and, to his horror, Jennifer was forcefully ejected from the pipe, barely catching herself on its rim with her hands.
He raised his wrench and was about to swing at the glass window (which he wasn't at all sure he could break even if he wanted to), but Jennifer turned quickly to him and showed him a thumbs up sign with one hand while holding onto the pipe with the other hand.
Holy crap, I hope you know what you're doing! Kyle watched as Jennifer, with visible difficulty, pulled herself into the pipe, hand over hand. A few seconds later she had vanished. Kyle counted another 30 seconds, cold sweat running down his forehead, then sprinted as fast as he could back up to the tank, where he could see the water flowing into the pipe.
"Jen? Jennifer? Are you there?" There was no answer. More seconds ticked by on Kyle's watch. It was now three minutes since she'd gone in. 3:05...3:10...3:15...
There was a splash back in the pipe, and Kyle could hear Jennifer gasping for breath.
"Jennifer? Are you all right in there?"
"Yes..." she was still gasping, but by the sound of the water she was also successfully making her way back through the pipe.
The water level hadn't gone down at all, and Kyle could see that water was flowing out of the other pipe on the opposite end, so there must be some governor to run the pumps so that the tank would stay full. There probably wasn't any such mechanism in place when the tank had been whole, since it wouldn't have been needed, so Kyle reasoned that the creatures must have actually installed it themselves when they dismantled the upper part of the tank.
Jennifer soon emerged from the pipe, then lay in the water for half a minute or so to catch her breath before standing up and getting out.
"Did the door open this time?" she asked.
"Yes. Yes it did."
"Well thank goodness, because I am not going back in there."
"I should say. Come on, let's go."
"Hey, gimme a chance to change into my dry stuff first!"
"Of course. I'll wait for you in the room up ahead."
Kyle didn't have to wait long. Just in case the door closed again, he propped up his wrench underneath it to preserve enough space to crawl through, but the door stayed the way it was and a couple of minutes later Jennifer appeared, dressed in the clothes she had been wearing before and carrying her underwear, which was still too wet to put on.
"Well, lead the way."
Kyle stepped through the door, and Jennifer came after him. The room on the other side was small and had a number of pipes running up the walls with various valves on them. Going through a plain plastic door on the other side of the room, they emerged into some kind of large warehouse, with rows of metal racks holding up various cardboard boxes and metal cylinders.
There didn't seem to be anyone in the warehouse, but there were two other exits, a large cargo door that was locked and another smaller door with an elevator call button on the outside. Kyle approached the door and pressed the button, and a moment later the door opened and the two of them stepped inside.
"Jen, look!" Kyle exclaimed, "The menu! It's got a list of industrial and residential sections!"
"Does that mean we really are out of the maintenance areas?"
"Yes, and not a moment too soon either! Let's see, I think I recognize one of the stops on this elevator, it's close to another elevator stop that can take me back to my room."
"And that one, it's a few stops sooner, it's on a hallway where I can get to another elevator and back to my room too."
Kyle selected the stop Jennifer had pointed out, and the elevator started moving.
"I don't know about you, but I'm not staying in here a moment longer than I need to." he said, "Monsters living in the substructure all around us, and we never knew! I don't know about you, but when I get back to my room I'm going to pack up my stuff and go straight to the city hall and ask them how the fuck they expect me to pass this building. There's no way this can comply with the state's safety standards."
"Count me in."
"I'll meet you just on the northern side, where the parking lots are, and we'll both go to the city hall. Remember, I'm in this as much as you are."
"Done. I can probably be there in...well, under an hour, anyway. If you're not there I'll wait for you."
They were silent for the rest of the elevator's trip. Jennifer got off at her stop, and then a few stops later Kyle got off as well. He took the other elevator up to the area where his room was. Stepping out, he was almost surprised to see people in the hallway. Actual, real people, not furry black monsters with tails. The dust and grease on his skin and clothes attracted a few stares as he made his way back to his room, but for the most part he was too tired out from his ordeal to take much notice.
Although washing himself up, changing his clothes and packing all his stuff took longer than he expected, he was still within his stated one-hour mark; he always liked to be punctual. Jennifer arrived outside the arcology about ten minutes later, and shortly after that the car that he had called arrived to take him back to the city hall. The ride through the city was again spent mostly in silence, as the two of them thought over what they had just been through. They were so deep in thought that it took a full 30 seconds or so after the car pulled up in front of the city hall for Jennifer to mention it.
"Looks like we've arrived."
There was silence for another couple of seconds.
"Mm. Come on."
Kyle was of course the only one who had been there before, so he led the way to the building and then up to Paul Duke's office. The door read 'Office hours: 8:30 AM - 5:00 PM'. It was already past 9:00, so Kyle inserted his citizen card into the door and it opened.
"Oh, come in." said Paul Duke, without looking up.
Kyle stepped up to the desk. "It's Kyle Harrison."
"Kyle...?" Paul finally looked up, and smiled when he saw who it was, "Oh, the safety inspector, of course! Sorry, I wasn't expecting you at this time in the morning...or today at all for that matter. Have you completed your on-site inspection already? What's the verd-"
"I want you to tell me what the hell is going on in that building."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the monsters." Paul stood up, the smile vanishing from his face, "The monsters that made the noises in the air duct. The monsters with the black fur and tails, and yellow eyes. The monsters that, when Jennifer Zhang here and I went into an air duct to find out what was going on, knocked us out and took us away to remote areas of the building's maintenance sections. The monsters that are actively dismantling and rebuilding vital sections of the arcology's utilities solely according to their whims. You must know something about this. You do, don't you?"
Paul was silent for a moment, then opened his mouth slowly. "Yes, I do. I know about it."
"Then would you mind giving me an explanation?" Each word Kyle said had the tone of a chisel striking a slab of rock.
Paul was silent for a while longer. "It's a long story..."
"Then you'd better get started. Because I'm not moving from this spot until I know. I- we've been through too much not to."
Paul closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Back in the 2020s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, was doing some research on genetic engineering. With the increasing mechanization and automation of military forces, they wanted to create a sort of creature that would be very good with machines, that could be used to make repairs in areas too dangerous or difficult for humans to enter. But they also wanted to keep the project, known as Project Gremlin, secret, as they do with all new military technologies, and they took careful efforts to prevent information from getting out. At first the experiments weren't very successful. They tried splicing together the genes of various primates, but almost always they created creatures that could barely survive even with medical assistance, and could never be viable for serious military use. After a while, though, they began to refine their designs, especially after they started using human genetics in the experiments. A short time before the Babel Convention came into effect and forced them to stop, they managed to build a creature that was their best success yet, a highly modified variety of human containing genes from various other organisms. The creatures were smaller than us, slender and well-built, with long arms and legs and prehensile tails, and covered in black fur. And their brains had been designed with an instinctive understanding of machines. They could repair just about anything."
"But how did they get into the darco, 60 years down the road?"
"Well, because the creatures were so good at dealing with artificial things, with mechanical things, they were hard to keep in captivity...they had a tendency to escape. Most of the ones that did escape died in the desert around the facility where they were being held, but the DARPA officials didn't want anybody even getting hold of a corpse. Eventually, they hired some specialists to design enclosures that could best keep such inventive, creative creatures from escaping. One of those specialists was an ingenious young architect, Dante McCallavre, barely out of university at the time. Naturally these people weren't told what it was they were really hired to design; they were given the specifications and that was it. But McCallavre was smart, too smart for them, and he figured it out. He approached one of the DARPA scientists about it, and the scientist admitted the truth, on the condition that McCallavre never reveal to the public what he had discovered. But he didn't let that stop him. Later, when he was designing his arcological masterpiece, he incorporated the Project Gremlin creatures into the design."
"But the design was revealed to the public."
"Only an abridged version, a version which didn't mention the creatures."
"I see. Why did he put them in, though?"
"Oh, they were a necessary part of his idea. As you must know, McCallavre was very much into the internal dynamics of buildings. He felt that if a building was just a solid block to keep the rain off, then it wasn't performing to his standards, nor could it truly be considered art. He wanted his buildings to be dynamic, to respond to the pressures and demands of their occupants in useful and interesting ways. And the darco, of course, was the ultimate example of that: It was built composed of two separate kinds of areas, those where normal humans lived and work, and the maintenance areas where the creatures lived, fed off the garbage brought in by the waste disposal systems, and repaired the machines. That, by the way, is why the arcology produces such small amounts of garbage and requires so little maintenance, and also the reason why the maintenance areas were sealed off. McCallavre intended for the maintenance sections of the arcology to be dynamic even in their structure, he wanted the creatures to take apart and rebuild the machines as they saw fit, in order to create the true epitome of internally dynamic arcologies."
"One thing I don't get, though...if the publicly available version of the design didn't mention the creatures, how did Jon Larralee know to ask for them to be put in as well?"
"He didn't. But the contract he drew up stated that we had to use Dante McCallavre's design exactly. And since McCallavre's own version included the creatures, we were legally obliged to put them in. DARPA wasn't too happy with the idea of putting them somewhere where they might be discovered, but eventually it was agreed that so long as we could get people to treat the whole idea of monsters in the arcology as one of those crackpot conspiracy theories no reasonable person ever takes seriously, the public at large need never come to know the entire truth on the matter, and only a few select people in important positions, including Gerald Wolfe and me, were told what was being done."
"And that's pretty much all. For the past four years, the creatures- we generally call them 'gremlins' after the project name, which in turn was named after the mythical creatures thought up during World War II- the gremlins have been living more or less comfortably in the arcology, just out of sight of its human inhabitants, keeping everything running smoothly in the maintenance sections."
"But of course, that can't go on. The inhabitants of the building have a right to know about these things. Also, you must realize I can't possibly pass the building, in terms of safety, knowing that there are those creatures in there. They're way too big of a risk, especially given that they keep rebuilding the utilities the way they do."
"Really? How do you know?"
"I... It's obvious! Even other pests like rats and so on, I would have to take into consideration for the building's safety levels. I can't just ignore a whole...a whole civilization of genetically engineered monsters, especially when most of the arcology's inhabitants don't even know they exist!"
"I'm not saying you shouldn't take them into consideration. But Mr. Harrison, ask yourself for a moment, what have the gremlins really done to pose a threat to the tenants of the building?" he paused, then continued, "The machines haven't suffered any operability damage as a result of the gremlins, quite the contrary, they work better than anyone expected them to. The gremlins have never killed anybody. They've never stolen anything, at least not anything of real value or importance."
"Maybe so," put in Jennifer, "but they did knock out Kyle and me, and then kidnapped us!"
"After you disturbed them by opening up the ventilation shaft. A ventilation shaft which, in all probability, explicitly said on the outside not to open it up. You were the ones trespassing on the gremlins' territory. The maintenance sections are theirs, and so long as the people in the building respect that, there won't be any trouble. But you didn't respect that, did you? Imagine yourself in the gremlins' place. How would you like it if two big, hairless brutes came in and invaded your natural habitat? Wouldn't you want to do something about it? Remember, the gremlins are people too, they're just as smart as us if not smarter. They know their place...and it's up to us to know ours."
"But..." said Kyle helplessly.
"Well, my other point still stands, though! The public has a right to know about this!"
"The public has a right to know, huh? Mr. Harrison, have you really thought this over at all? If we opened up and told everybody about the gremlins, told them the whole story, what would happen?"
Kyle and Jennifer both stood in silence as the question slowly soaked in.
"I'll tell you what would happen." Paul continued, not giving them enough time to formulate an answer, "The gremlins would be persecuted no end. I mean, think about it for Christ's sake, we still have racists persecuting blacks, racists persecuting whites, racists persecuting latin americans, racists persecuting indians and orientals and natives and jews...can you imagine how these people would react if we threw the gremlins onto the scene? We'd see anti-gremlin hatred, anti-gremlin violence, people would blame the gremlins for all the world's problems, they'd claim the gremlins were perversions of the natural human body, they'd claim the gremlins were perversions of the image of God, they'd say and do all kinds of horrible things. You talk about the public's right to know? What about the gremlins' right to live? Moreover, to live in peace and security? At last count there were approximately 2200 gremlins living in the darco. Don't their rights matter to you?" he paused again, "Mr. Harrison, Miss Zhang, people who know way more about the issue than you ever will have spent literally years thinking over this same question. And if they had reached the same conclusion as you have through your immediate intuition, if they had believed that the public's right to know superseded the gremlins' right to not be tormented for what they can't help being, then they would have revealed the truth long ago, before either of you were even born, maybe even before I was born. No, the fact is, we're not a mature enough society yet to be ready for something like this. Maybe in a few hundred years, or a few thousand, but for now, this is for the best."
Kyle and Jennifer were still silent.
"Is there anything I've said that doesn't make sense?"
Kyle slowly shook his head. "No."
"Good. Now what I want you to do... First, don't reveal the truth about the gremlins to anyone, keep it to yourselves. You know why. Second, Kyle, I want you to evaluate the building without taking the gremlins into account, at all, and hand your evaluation in so we can make it official. Then you can go do whatever you want...just keep this secret safe. In fact, I'll see to it that you're paid extra, after what you've been through you deserve a bit of a bonus."
"And if we don't keep it a secret?" put in Jennifer, "What if we tell the world what happened in there?"
"Do you really think they'd believe you? There are thousands of people living and working in the darco who already believe in the monsters, even if they don't know exactly what they are. To some extent that's due to actual accidental sightings of the gremlins. Mostly, though, it's due to deliberate rumor-planting by the people who do know the whole truth. We've carefully engineered it so that it's treated like just another crackpot conspiracy theory. If you go out there and start telling people, the only ones who'll believe you are the ones who are prepared to believe just about anything anyway, and everyone else will just think you're an insane conspiracy buff and laugh at you. What good would that do? You're better off just to do as I've said, that way everything turns out fine for everybody."
There was another long silence. Then Jennifer nodded and said "You're right."
"Mr. Harrison?" Paul turned to Kyle.
"Yes...yes, I guess you are."
"Good. Then it's settled. You finish your job, Mr. Harrison, without worrying about the gremlins, and then the both of you never bring this incident up again."
Kyle and Jennifer both nodded and mumbled affirmatives, then turned and left.
The two of them walked back out of the building, across the gardens in front of it, and up to the side of the road. The morning sunlight was shining down just over one of the office buildings on the other side of the road. Jennifer stopped and turned to Kyle.
"Well, all in all, it wasn't really so bad, was it? The incident, I mean."
"Mm...no, you're right, it wasn't. It was pretty scary at the time, and weird too, but neither of us really came out that much the worse for wear. I'm down one PDA, but it was a cheap one and had nothing on it that wasn't backed up. And I guess I've gained a bit of knowledge, a bit of wisdom, too, for having survived that ordeal."
"Plus you got yourself a new girlfriend."
"Come on, we can't go through something like that together and not get at least a little involved." she put one arm around him, "I think we'd be pretty good for each other, don't you?"
Kyle smiled, and Jennifer smiled back. Then he grinned, and she grinned back. He chuckled, putting one arm around her back, and they both stood together in the clear, crisp sunlight.
"Where do you live?" Kyle asked after a while.
"I spend most of my time with my family in Seattle." she replied, "Why?"
"Because my apartment is in Chicago. That's a couple thousand miles away."
"So you mean, if we're going to do this 'girlfriend' thing, we need to find somewhere to live together."
"Exactly. Preferably some place we're both familiar with, some nice place where we can both be comfortable together, some place where we can both pursue our interests. Some place with nice weather and nice surroundings, some place that's not too hard to live in but interesting enough that we don't get bored..."
To the northwest, the vast, black shape of the darco loomed on the horizon.