The lab’s airlock pops open and Dr. Curtis walks through the doorway, each step harder than the last. His arms swing while he moves forward in perfect rhythm with his walk. He stares down Hunter through his thick brow and heavy eyebrows, snearing out of the side of his mouth.
“Hunter, what the fuck is happening here?” he barks out.
“Air-exhaust three is malfunctioning, Dr. Curtis,” Hunter replies. “I think there’s something clogged in the vent.”
“Well, whatever it is, get it the fuck out,” the high pitch raspiness of Curtis’ voice came out.
Hunter knows that glare and snarl all too well. His first week in the lab he mixed up Petri dishes and wound up cloning ten-thousand extra stocks of celery when he was supposed to be cloning oranges. Curtis’ snear went high and his brow drooped over his eyes, like the madder he got the more that brow dropped down.
“What are we going to do with all this extra celery?” his voice was like blocks of compressed snow rubbing against each other that day. Made Hunter cringe every time Curtis opened his mouth. He got used to the raspy snear and whine over time, but that first week Hunter couldn’t believe what he got himself into taking this lab job and prayed to God it would finally rain.
The air exhausts are located at south-west side of the complex, the opposite side from where the food is grown against the east wall. Hunter, who was by the computers monitoring the air exhausts that ran along the north wall of the lab, starts his jog, the equivalent of five city blocks from where he was standing. Ait exhaust three was the furthest south and furthest west of the seven erect tubes in two rows: air exhausts four to seven ran along the outside wall on the south-west that ran diagonally along, giving the complex a triangular shape. Air exhausts one to three ran between exhausts four to seven, like soup cans stacked on their sides to make a pyramid.
When an air exhaust, or stack as their sometimes called, has a clog, there’s no computer algorithm to fix it – it has to be done manually. The air travelled from the three-cloning plantation through thick vents with fans to push the air out. Each stack also had a side airlock door on them in case anything was to fall into them. The best way to fix a clog is to cut off the air flow to the stack, climb in, reach into the vent and find what got stuck. This had to be done quickly, the Last Continent depended on all seven stacks for its air production, to lose one stack for even an hour would completely throw off the Last Continent’s air mass and pressure, enough of a change and people would start exploding. Their bodies were used to a certain air pressure. Any sudden changes in that air pressure, like losing stack three, and people would simply combust, and the more people die the more the Complex Corporation loses money.
Cloning plants for air and food didn’t come cheap. People bought fruits and vegetables each week and paid a monthly air-fee, it took up most people’s paycheques. Work was becoming scarce on the Last Continent. Most people used to work in the Nuclear Corporation facilities, but those weren’t on where the Last Continent sits now. Technically, where those sat isn’t anywhere now. Nuclear Corporations mostly made bombs. One day, they all went off. Poof went everything, except for the Last Continent, at the time called Australia. All those other countries gave up on nuclear disarmament, figuring one of them would eventually want the others’ non-renewable resources. And besides, there was big money in big fear and big weapons.
The Nuclear Corporations didn’t like that Australia wasn’t manufacturing weapons like they all were. To see a country take a pacifist’s approach was bad for business. So, they did what any major corporation would do if someone threatened it business; they tried to sue Australia, and when that didn’t work, they increased their production. So much so they needed to hire new people. Unfortunately, inexperienced people. One woopsie – and boom, goodbye everywhere.
Australia was far enough away that none of the blasts affected it, until the radiation started travelling and killed all the plant life. Before all the naturally occurring plants died off, a few scientists saved a few plants and started cloning them. They cloned enough to sustain the air mass and some food once the last bush had withered and stopped reproducing cells. Australia was mostly desert terrain to begin with, so the plants didn’t take long to die, but at the same time, people were used to not having a lot of trees around. You noticed a huge difference towards the coastline, those certain parts of the country that had forests filled with cute animals like koala bears (now completely extinct except for the few kept in the Complex Corporation’s lab to study how a lack of animals affects plant life), so most of the population began moving inland, where it was most dry but also where the Complex Corporation lab had been built. Seemed like a smart idea, be next to where the air is coming from.
A few years later, Australia renamed itself the Last Continent, as a reminder about how smart it was not to join the nuclear production fad. Most people worked normal jobs, opened stores and fixed people’s houses. Complex Corporation started buying all those jobs, and then fired everyone who worked them. Some people were outraged but knew there wasn’t much they could do: after all, Complex owned the means to let them live.
Hunter was lucky to get a job as a stack-technician, basically someone who makes sure all the stacks are working right, and when they aren’t, to fix them before anyone explodes.
It took all that exposition for Hunter to finally reach stack three. The airlock door pops open and he reaches into the main air vent, hoping he doesn’t have to climb in to find what he’s looking for. The vents are about two feet off the ground and four feet in diameter, so it’s no problem for a person to crawl in. Take some guts though, you can’t have claustrophobia and you have to not mind winding up with wind-tunnel hair.
Thankfully, Hunter was able to find what he was looking for at arm’s length in the vent. Whatever it was, it was soft, still a little warm, and heavy to pull out. Hunter has to reach with both arms, grab a handful of fabric that surrounded the soft warm thing, and push back with his foot to finally pull out what was lodged in there. It only moved in a small crawl until it reached the end of the vent, when it popped out like a champagne cork, pushing Hunter and causing him to fall on his back.
It takes a second for Hunter to realize the stuck thing landed on top of him. The t-shirt it was wearing tore and Hunter still had a bunch of the fabric in his hands. It was lying on his face and Hunter turns it over to find out it’s a person that was stuck in stack three. But that wasn’t the disturbing part.
The person lay with his arms around himself, like he was hugging himself while he crawled through. But what he was holding against himself was a bit of a tree. Hunter doesn’t recognize the breed of the tree, it’s not one that’s in the lab, so there’s no way this person broke in, stole the plant, and crawled through the vent to stack three as an escape.
Hunter picks up the plant and examines it. It’s strange, because it has prickles instead of leaves, but it isn’t a cactus, like what used to grow in the deserts. He and the corpse have to get out of the stack quick and turn back on the airflow, so Hunter drags the body by the underarm and around his shoulder, tosses him out the side door, thumping against the ground and tossing up the dust around it.
Curtis paces around his office in a huff, trying to put his arms around his back like a great genius thinking about the great conundrums of existence, only his arms don’t reach all around. His arms flop to his side as he plops down into his chair and swivels back and forth breathing hard.
“Alright Hunter, no one can know about what you found,” Curtis barks out.
“People get stuck in those stacks all of the time,” Hunter replies, and he’s right. A small group of neo-environmentalists, similar to the ones that surfaced in the ’90s (who, in turn, were just imitating the ones that come out of the ’60s (so I guess these would be neo-neo-environmentalists or post-neo-environmentalists)) began protesting the Complex Corporation, saying that the plants should be liberated and growing naturally. They didn’t realize that the only decent soil that could grow plants to begin with became so radioactive that nothing would ever grow in it, let alone something that humans would want to eat from or breathe. Post-neo-meta-environmentalists have never been much for facts, just yammering garbage about the energies and mother earth – little did they know that mother earth left us all orphaned.
“I know, and the public usually never has any problem when we tell them we pulled another dead hippie from a vent,” Curtis continues. “But none of them have ever been pulled out holding a plant we’ve never seen before. Who knows where he got that from? I want a full investigation but keep your goddamn mouth shut.”
Hunter remembers the first time he heard about the environmentalists. He was young, doesn’t remember exactly how young, but young enough that he wasn’t sure what to make of these people trying to say that the people who his dad worked for were evil people.
This world, with the Complex Corporation, constant desert everywhere, life constantly manufactured and synthesized by a single entity, was the only world he knew.
His parents talked about the days before the Last Continent. They both wanted to travel but never got the opportunity to. He’d listen to his parents talk back and forth about magazines they’d buy, looking at faraway lands and imagining themselves walking through exotic forests, romantic cobblestone streets, and dining at restaurants where they couldn’t read the menus. They’d talk, they’d laugh, but then mother would start crying. She missed the world. In a sense, Hunter missed the world too. He missed a world he never knew every time his mother cried. He wondered what he was missing out on.
It wasn’t long before his mother vanished. One morning, Hunter got out of bed and walked into his parents’ room and found nothing. He stood, alone, in a room he used to find so much comfort walking into. He wondered if this was how his mother felt when she thought about before the Last Continent.
He wandered through the house and found his father at the kitchen table, holding a piece of paper, crumpling the ends between his fingers and breathing heavily. He crushed the paper into a ball and threw it against the ground before storming out of the room. He’d stand on the front deck for the rest of the day, just staring out, not saying a word.
Hunter picked up the paper and uncrumpled it and tried to decipher what was on it. He was still too young to read but recognized his mother’s handwriting. Hunter never asked his father what the note said.
To this day, he still doesn’t know.
The tree perplexes Hunter. He tires studying the strange, prickly plant that he found held by the corpse in the vent, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He had already studied its cell structure: rigid walls just like the other plants the factory grew. He inspected its thorns and found them to contain collagen, just the same as the factory cloned plants. Finally, he experimented with its ability to photosynthesize energy and food for itself. Again, much the same to the other plants in the factory.
Hunter becomes curious about how the strange plant will be affected by seasonal changes. He uses some of the cells in the plant to clone a full tree, small in stature, but mature enough to exhibit all the signs of any tree that would have been found in the wild.
The seasonal simulator is a long, cylindrical glass tube with an air locked section that rises to place vegetation inside of it and test the effects seasonal changes. This device came in handy when the Complex Corporation first started cloning trees for air and food, deciding what plants were most resilient and how to manipulate their genetic code while cloning to create vegetation so resilient that seasonal changes would not cause them to wilt or hibernate.
The tests begin and the plant is subjected to a rapid changing of seasons in a contained environment that tricks the plants cells into thinking that the seasons are changing normally. Spring to summer to fall to winter to spring again saw little change to the strange plant. None of its prickles fell, it never changed colour, it never wilted or hibernated. Exploring the original source plant again, Hunter found no dramatic genetic changes, no chemical boosters, no synthetic collagen to prevent the plant’s seasonal life cycle. It simply endured. Naturally endured.
There’s a bar that Complex Corporation employees go to once their shifts are over. Only the low level employees go there, in fact, none of the employees know anything about the board or the upper managers, or at least, who they assume are a board and upper managers. Fact of the matter, they don’t even know how the hierarchy at Complex works. The person above them hires them – and that’s about it.
The bar has the usual drinks, your cheap cloned water, the pricey natural water that Complex produced but didn’t give a discount to any employee (after all, almost everyone was a Complex employee, how did they expect to make any money giving out discounts?) and for the excessive indulgent, the bar serves cans of pure oxygen.
Hunter sits at a table towards the back. The waitress with long straight black hair and wearing a tight black tank-top with the Complex Corporation’s circular logo across her chest comes by and lets him know there’s an oxygen special on today. Just great, Hunter thought, in about half an hour everyone in this bar is going to be high enough to try and crawl through some of the stack’s vents themselves. All Hunter wants is a cloned water. He throws his few Complex dollars onto the table and asks for a tall glass of the cloned stuff. The waitress shrugs, like she’s surprised he didn’t take her up on the oxygen deal, grabs the money with the swipe of her hand and walks off to the front.
Looking around the bar, Hunter sees people talking, laughing, spilling water and sucking on cans so hard they collapse before the person stops to exhale. They usually cough and laugh once they let that breath out. The sound around him is like a wall, encasing him and leaving him feeling deaf. He tries to listen in on conversations, but it all comes out as noise. He has no idea what anyone is talking about, but judging by the way people suck on cans and spill water, he figures it’s nothing important.
A body drops in the chair in front of Hunter and starts talking. He’s talking loudly but Hunter pays no attention until this new being slaps the table hard and yells, “Hey buddy, do ya hear me there?!”
Hunter looks at the man and figures he’s had at least a dozen cans of oxygen. His smile causes his eyes to squint hard to where it looks like the upper half of his face is collapsing, like if you grabbed the top of a can and slowly rolled it on itself.
“No, sorry friend, I must have missed that,” Hunter finally lets out, not even sure why he’s talking back.
“I heard you’re on that case! The fuckin’ hippy dippy in stack three!” He slaps the table again and starts laughing, his chest bouncing as he heaves and gasps for air. “Did you fuckin’ know he ain’t even the first?!”
“Of course,” Hunter replies. “This has been happening for years, but…”
“And I know why this one’s so fuckin’ special!” he screams out. “You think he’s been the first found with a fuckin’ plant in his arms?! The only reason why you’re investigating this is that you should have never found him! Ha! Never should have found that fuckin’ hippy. Now Complex needs to keep you busy, make you think you’re finding something new! They’ve known for fuckin’ years!”
“So what? I’m on some kind of goose chase then?” The waitress comes by and places Hunter’s water in front of him. Hunter watches her walk away.
“Ah. You like that piece of tail, don’t ya?!” His high man’s black hair falls in front of his face, covering his forehead and hanging a bit of his eye, dripping with sweat, obviously from the euphoric excitement. “I’ll tell you what, I bet Complex is paying her to listen in to our little talk here friend.”
“What makes you figure that?”
“Cause I’m supposed to be the guy watching you and making sure you don’t get any smart ideas about that new plant. Hell, they’re considering offing you already for that unauthorized experiment you did in the season-simulator. I had to talk them out of it. Take this as a warning pal, quit nosing around. Come up inconclusive with your findings, forget you ever saw that prickly-fuckin’-thing, and go back to work. The more you shut up the better it is for you.”
Hunter can’t tell if this guy in front of him is so high that he’s making up all this garbage, or if he’s so high he just blew his own cover. A dozen cans of oxygen do funny things to a guy.
The bar’s closed but Hunter stands outside by the back entrance. His hands are in his pocket and he leans against the wall next to the door, staring out into the night sky watching the stacks pump out air. He breathes deep and wonders what it was like before the Last Continent, before Complex, and wonders where his mother is.
The waitress comes through the door and walks to opposite way from Hunter. He runs up behind her and catches up, grabbing her arm gently at the elbow. She turns quickly.
“Who the f.. oh,” she begins. “My only cloned water of the night, and he didn’t even tip. Look, I don’t know why you hung around or what you were expecting, but I’m not that kind of waitress. Complex doesn’t pay me enough for that kind of shit.”
“Were you listening in on my conversation?” Hunter asks.
“What the fuck are you…”
“I need to know. If Complex is looking to kill me then I ought to know everyone who’s watching my every move.”
“Listen pal, I’m not part of your paranoid delusion or the O-2 case’s euphoric fantasy…”
“Just answer the question.”
She stares at Hunter for a minute and breathes slow. Her head spins left and right before she grabs Hunter’s hand and walks him around the corner and down a dark street.
“Where are you taking me?” he asks.
She stops in front of Hunter’s apartment building. Hunter looks up the steps and then back down at her. “So, you know where I live. Paranoid delusion, right?”
“Shut up for a second,” she blurts back. She stares at the doorway, then grabs Hunter’s arm again. “Run.”
Before Hunter has a chance to react, the door bursts open, splinters fly past his face, and Hunter starts running closely behind the waitress. Hunter can hear heavy steps running up behind him, but he doesn’t look back. Just keeps running forward, trying to stay ahead.
The two come across a bus at the end of the block. “Get in,” she commands.
Hunter hops in the side door, the waitress hops through shortly after, and a voice from the front yells “Hold on!” before the van takes off with guns shots coming from behind them, shattering the back windshield.
Hunter tries to catch his breath, and looks at the waitress. “Paranoid delusions.”
The van suddenly stops and Hunter realizes he fell asleep on the drive out. He looks through the broken glass of the back windshield to see the city’s lights glowing in the distance. The side door opens and standing in front of the old warehouse the van’s parked in front of is a face with sweaty black hair hanging over his forehead, just covering his eye.
“Bet ya missed me,” he says, smiling wide.
“Should you have been driving after all that oxygen?” Hunter asks as he crawls out of the van.
“Had you going there, didn’t I? My best performance yet,” he replies, putting out his hand. “Name’s Leo, and no I don’t actually work for Complex, and no I’m not here to watch your every move.”
“But Complex is trying to kill me.”
“The big bad business isn’t the only one with spies kicking around.”
This shocks Hunter because he’s always been told no one has ever infiltrated the environmentalists. But at this point, he wonders why he’s taking anything Complex has told him seriously. “Spies, huh. That’s how you guys figure things out?”
“Well, living spies for the low level stuff,” continues Leo. “It’s easy to get an entry level job and report back basic findings. You know, lab techs, waitresses, easy stuff. The good stuff comes from those who are no longer with us.”
This is the point that Hunter realizes that both sides have been setting him up. “The guy in stack three. What you had a tracer on him? I was always supposed to find his body? Who was he?”
“Well, kind of, um…”
“The reason he had a plant in his arms was that he was a Complex spy,” the waitress steps in. “When we figured it out, we planted him with a mic and tracer and let him grab the plant and run off. He was crawling through the vent to get in and report back.”
“Why didn’t he…”
“What? Walk through the front door?” the waitress interrupts. “Number one, he was dressed like one of us. And secondly, because low-level guys like you aren’t supposed to know about these little operations. Hell, if the public found out,” she shakes her head. “People are ok with being controlled so long as it’s not in their faces and obnoxious. They’re okay with paying for air but spies are apparently still going too far.”
The waitress starts to walk towards the warehouse when Hunter grabs her elbow again. “Wait, thanks for helping me back there.”
She nods slowly. “My name’s Annabelle.”
“I guess you already know my name,” Hunter responds. “But why help the guy who got your bug into Complex? I served my purpose in your plan, didn’t I?”
“Let’s just say there’s something I like about your eyes,” Annabelle responds.
Hunter notices a few scratches along his face while he stares into a mirror. The men’s bathroom is on the opposite end to the front entrance of the warehouse. Hunter walked through taking in the hoards of people, standing around and talking. No one wore a uniform from Complex, in fact, Hunter only just notices he’s still wearing his as he stares into the mirror. He wipes some dust and wood fragment’s from under his collar and runs his fingers along the embroidered Complex logo over his heart. He pulls his pocket comb from his back pocket and combs back the dark hair that was sticking up every which way now. Part on the right, comb to the side, still keeping to Complex standards.
Hunter steps out of the bathroom back into the large open room that housed those who don’t believe in paying for the air that Complex provides them. They don’t realize that the only reason they’re alive is because of Complex and that they should be grateful for what they have. He hears conversations about what some other countries were like, the kind of food they made and all the exotic places they explored before the Last Continent. Always looking back and never looking to the future or paying attention to what’s happening now. Hunter starts to wish that he just went home and was killed already so he didn’t have to stand among these useless, post-neo-meta-hippie-environmentalists. If they didn’t exist to begin with then none of this would have happened. There would have been no issue with stack three, there would have been no unfamiliar plant, and Hunter would be sitting in his apartment right now huffing oxygen and staring at his walls like he did most evenings. That’s what everyone did in the evening. Was that so bad?
Hunter wasn’t about to give up his life for some flakey ideals. Through a window back where the front entrance is Hunter could see the city’s lights and knew it wouldn’t be a far walk back. With one step forward he tries to make his march back to his old life. Two steps in he looks to the side and sees a face, wrinkles setting in and frames by dark hair hinting to silver. Her eyes look over and Hunter stops mid step feeling his heart stop and his stomach climb. She smiles and tears fill Hunter’s eyes. She walks towards him, smiling still, her green eyes fixed without blinking.
“I was hoping you’d find us,” she says in almost a sing-song voice that Hunter remembers from his lullabies as a child.
Hunter’s father worked the same job that Hunter works now; in case you forgot, Hunter monitors the stacks and makes sure that everything runs smooth and nothing’s blocking the air. There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Hunter would wind up working the same job that his father did. Hunter wasn’t very good at many things, but then again most children weren’t. They city’s children were bred to eventually work for Complex, be it in the factories or building and fixing the buildings and houses that Complex owns. One parent’s pride and joy was Complex’s future employee investment. People were given food and allowed to breathe so that Complex could continue making money for generations.
Most boys ended up with their fathers’ jobs, but rarely did their fathers ever move up in Complex. Promotions were scarce and only employees that demonstrated a unique skill or a higher than average intelligence ever moved anywhere. Hunter’s father was intelligent but he never flaunted it. At home Hunter’s father would read books that he’d kept from before the Last Continent and he’d create large mathematical puzzles for himself to solve.
When Hunter started training for his position, he asked Curtis what he thought of his father. “He did what he did,” the supervisor replied. “Not very bright, I could tell that. He didn’t talk much and was always modest about his skill set. He would just stare at the stacks’ readings, clean something out if he had to, and went home. Nope, not very bright at all, because I can tell bright people, and your dad wasn’t one of them.”
Hunter wondered if Curtis’ supervisor said the same thing about his father.
“How long have you been here?” Hunter asks.
“I left a little after you turned five,” she replies.
“I know that,” Hunter interrupts. “But, I mean, how long have you been associating with these kind of people.”
“That gets a little complicated,” she continues, staring at the concrete ground and swinging her arm. She stares up, through her shaggy bangs and smiles. “I’ve always loved your green eyes. So bright and vibrant.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Hunter barks. “These people ruin everything, we have it so good back in the city, why are you here? Why do you want to ruin everything?”
“I’m not trying to ruin everything, I’m trying to save everything,” she barks back harder and louder. “You don’t know the world that I knew. You never got to hike through the Amazon or explore the African Jungles. You never got to see snow covered mountains or feel a tropical rain. None of these things I’m saying means anything to you and yet even when I say them I remember the smells, the tastes and I miss it so much, Hunter.”
“I used to miss it too, but then I missed you.”
“I’m sorry I left, and I wish I could have brought you along, but I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had to leave and find… something. Anything that wasn’t cloned or manufactured.”
“So when did you wind up here?”
She looks around the warehouse and stares up at the scaffolding overhead. She smiles as she stares into the fluorescent lights overhead and stretches out her arms like she’s introducing Hunter to the world. “I found this place.”
People from all around started walking close and sitting down, staring up at her as she continues her story.
“I wandered out of the city, it was early still, I left before sunrise to make sure I still had time to write a note. I walked through our front door and I walked and just walked until I was out of the city and then I walked some more. I thought that if I didn’t find anything out here, that it was all barren waste, that at least I would suffocate and die out here. I wouldn’t have to die in that city. I walked for hours and I kept breathing, but the air felt so different. Like it wasn’t just chemicals I was breathing in, like it was simply life. Before the Last Continent, before Complex, we used to have real food that was grown from the ground, not in labs. Breathing that air felt like tasting that food again.”
She takes Hunter by the hand and walks him towards the door opposite from where he came in. It swings open and they step outside. Hunter feels his blood slow down and feels himself take a deep breath as he stares out into the field where hundreds of trees, all with the prickly leaves that he hadn’t seen until what he found in stack three, scattered out and growing from the ground, looking stronger, thicker, and greener than anything he had seen in the lab before.
Hunter takes another deep breath and holds it like he would with a can of oxygen at the bar. He feels the pressure pushing out from his lungs as he holds the breath, but he still holds it like he never wants to let it go, like he may never breathe again. She puts her hand on his diaphragm and he exhales slowly, feeling the blood move through his veins, like he was just born and this was the first breath he ever took.
“The Earth always finds a way,” she says, looking to the sky.
A smell hangs past Hunter’s nose, like the smell that arose when he put the plants through their photosynthesis cycle, but it was like if a thousand plants were all being put through the cycle at once. So potent and strong.
The air swings by Hunter’s face and he wipes the sweat from his brow with his hand, only his sweat is cold. That’s when he hears the plink plink plink around him. He looks up and sees tiny droplets of water falling from the sky.
“Complex never wanted us to know about this,” she says, Hunter barely listening as he feels the water against his face and his arms. “It’s why the city stopped expanding. They knew years ago. They only wanted to start doing something about it now.”
Hunter walks around the warehouse’s perimeter and finds himself looking back in the direction of the city. The lights of the building glow leaving a yellow ring surrounding the arc the city creates in the distance. Hunter can almost see his apartment building from where he’s standing. He thinks about his job, his couch, his television set, all the Complex run programming that would be on at that moment, the food that’s left in his fridge distributed to him by Complex, and who’s at the bar still and if the special on oxygen is still on.
Even as he stands, soaking wet and breathing deep breaths, he still feels an urge to take a step forward and start walking back.