Charles’s Job Part II

The timer dinged, indicating the reservoir’s water allotted for bathing that day had been used. Charles’s eyes opened to the familiar walls, carved out of bedrock, and fixtures built to last two lifetimes: rust-proof, ding-proof, autosterilizing, motion activated and all monitored by the nearly sentient computer. The engineers had given it a voice. Years ago, when Charles was still young, the computer would respond to his commands in a calm, clear, sexless voice

“Yes, Charles”

and when Charles woke each day the speakers in his bed frame would chirp

“Good morning Charles”

and whisper

“Good night Charles”

as he lay his bones upon his mattress. Charles couldn’t remember when it started, but at some point he began to answer the computer.

“Good morning Charles”

“Good morning Darling”

“Please run diagnostics on the reactor, Darling.”

“Reactor operating at ten percent. Approximate time left at current consumption rate: 331.7 years.”

“Nothing to worry about then, right Darling?”

But the computer was not programmed to respond to questions, only commands. Charles felt a secret shame and fear creep through him. For the rest of the day he would only use the manual interface at the main terminal to monitor the systems, the nursery, the surface, and perform all his chores silently and pretending he hadn’t been speaking to a complex mess of circuits and screens. That he wasn’t lonely.

It had been three days since Charles had checked on the lubricating cultures in the turbine axel. Charles had helped design the reactor system for the compound, one of the reasons he had been selected to be the Steward. The reactor heated water, generating steam, that spun a giant turbine, generating an electric current. Most of the current powered the compound but a percentage went to charging a large battery that was relied on whenever the turbine was being serviced. The turbine’s lubrication was provided by a culture of bacteria that produced natural oil, secreting it as waste, which trickled down from their cradle into the bearings of the turbine. Every several days, Charles would power down the turbine and go down, open up the pooling reservoir and collect all the oil that the bacteria had created, fed into the turbine, and was then broken down by the intense heat from the massive speed of the mechanism. This used oil would be incorporated into the auger that grew a separate strain of bacteria. These bacteria excreted a serum that fed the oil producing cultures. Both these strains, though marvels, had severe drawbacks. The genes that had been inserted into their DNA to make them produce their unique products inhibited the self-correcting mechanisms in each cell.

Small mistakes in mRNA coding that would normally be detected and repaired were allowed to continue, and after a few days the accumulated mutations would result in a cell unable to complete basic functions and regulate the ion pumps in their membranes killing the cells. Because of this flaw, every few days Charles had to go down and replace each culture with new clones of the original cells that were kept in stasis in the nursery.

Charles had a time limit when completing this task, however. The steam released by the reactor would burn him alive if he stood in the chimney while it was active. A thick steel bulkhead closed, just beneath the turbine housing, bisecting the chimney and trapping the steam beneath where Charles had to work. But the steam was created at such a rate that it would burst through the bulkhead at a predicted ten minutes. Charles had nightmares about that chimney.

On his way back from the turbine, walking down the stairs in the gently sloping tunnel Charles passed the cavern housing the mainframe. He stopped, turned and walked into the cavern, slipping on the parka hanging outside the door. This room and the chimney were the only chambers that had doors. In the chimney it was to contain the heat of the steam. In the mainframe’s cavern it was to keep in the cold. In this great vault there were five clusters of five databases, each like the five stretching fingers of five great cabled, blinking, buzzing hands sprouting out of the ceiling and burrowing their nails into the floor. In the center of this cavern was the mainframe terminal where Charles now sat, his breath haunting the air before him, the ghost of exhalations past.

“Hello Charles.”

“Hello Darling.”

“Shall I run diagnostics on the Art, Science, Math, History, and Protocol databanks Charles?” naming each of the clusters. Each cluster held the entirety of human achievement and folly in its binary brains.

“Yes Darling, please do that.”

The computer began listing the temperatures, statuses, contents, percent capacities, and speed of each of the clusters, its voice pleasantly listing percentages and rates and to Charles it sounded content in its actions, pleased to be performing tasks for him. On the Uni-port before him he accessed computer preferences and scrolled down to interface and his finger hovered over “aural updates”. As the screen began to blur Charles whispered

“Goodbye Darling” and the droning was suddenly gone. Charles sat cold, still, feeling the tears freeze against his lashes, hearing only the whirr of the fans.

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2 Responses to “Charles’s Job Part II”

  1. Your story line is fantastic. I feel like I am there. I do feel elements or rather maybe it helps solidify images and sequences in the book, YEAR OF THE FLOOD.

    Should it bother me that this is a hauntingly scary (potential) scene and yet I’m not really perturbed by it?

    In fact, I envision this already going on in our world and there isn’t really any emotional response. Does that mean I (and maybe the rest of the world) is that desensitized to images created from your story? THAT FREAKING SCARES ME! Yet, there are examples of it in our daily lives-whether personally, community, or globally.

    Totally looking forward to the next morsel to be posted.

  2. thanks Rita. I didn’t stay in the theme of the week as much as I would have liked. I’m going to try and make the next one a bit more revealing about what’s happened outside and reveal more about the nursey.

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