Through the Bright Glass, Qadesh (2020)

Percent humidity and degrees Celsius were low in the nominal band for simulated spring in the modelled forty-degree latitude. On the other hand, partial pressures of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and other trace gases were precisely at the programmed 1950 blend. Jaco stared at his tablet and studied the scrolling pages detailing twenty-four hours of logged ecosystem parameters. The Atmospheric Control and Measurement System, ACAMS, laid it quite bare. Every instrument of every monitored zone in Biome-1 fed into ACAMS, and ACAMS reported everything was within tolerance. Not one red cell in the digital spreadsheet drew attention to a problem. Jaco tapped the upper right corner of the twelve-by-seven inch tablet and tucked it under his arm, grimacing at the discordance between the digitalized data and his perception of his little world.

Vaulting panes of glass separated the two square kilometers of forest, flower, and miniature fauna from the outside atmosphere. Two elliptical pools occupying a fifth of that area reflected the glancing, soft light from the setting sun. Separating the two was an arched pathway, lined with reaching branches of wetland brush on one side and saline tolerant grass and palms on the other. Gravel choked with the hardiest of underfoot vegetation filled the gap. Beneath the path, two layers of plastic-sheathed synthetic rubber with a two-millimeter titanium stiffener sheet prevented saltwater leeching across the land bridge, and their effectiveness monitored by the web of salinity cells covering both ponds and the dirt between. Every minute they communicated with ACAMS. Unfortunately, the salinity cells did not explain why the monitored mid-Atlantic North American flowers receded further from the shoreline, why petals were browning, why there were more dead stalks.

Jaco returned to Biome-1’s singular hill, adjacent to the airlocks separating the artificial land from its main connector to the central hub. At the top of the hill was the only bench, with its single, brass placard commemorating the topographical architect of the biome. Jaco surveyed the land that was his, the land which bore a variety of delectable apples, pears, and peaches from its outer perimeter and vitamin rich grains, tubers, roots, and rainbow of vegetables from the multi-tiered, hydroponic gardens. Past F-Pond-1 and S-Pond-1, past the cultivated rows rice, wheat, and corn surrounding those ponds, in the furthest corner, hydroponic section II-A3-P2, were his favorite – peppers that forced from their victims the utterly false claims of never eating another one again.  Jaco kept a particularly watchful eye on those.

He placed the smart-glass tablet in his lap then tugged sharply on his pants at the kneecaps to eliminate the wrinkles visible through the sleeping device. A tap on the corner laser-etched “Power” briefly turned the glass opaque before displaying the readings he was last studying. This hill, Watson’s Hill, was the highest terrain in Biome-1. Historically, higher ground aided military leaders by providing the necessary perspective to survey the conflagration and to direct forces as needed. But buried beneath the mirrored surfaces of the two great ponds lay no overt offensive motions, no immediately discernible causes, nothing to counter ACAMS’ reports of all things within specification. He selected S-Pond’s tab. Dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, conductivity, biochemical oxygen demand, total coliform, all showing green. No, not all, pH was again low in the green band but dissolved oxygen was just slightly higher, which he couldn’t explain. He tabbed out and selected F-Pond from the Marine Ecosystem parent folder. Again, all within the acceptable range, a range derived from decades of observations, measurements, and the accumulated millions of hours of effort by the amalgamated generations of contributing scientists. Despite their effort, some unsampled, unknown variable was causing the vegetation on his watch to change and the surface colors of the ponds to just so slightly change. In spite of the heuristic coupling of colors to numbers, Jaco hoped he was simply misinterpreting the records, that somehow, he was mistaking a pH of 6.8 for 7.8 and red for green.

A darkening red hue slipped across the ponds’ surfaces like velvet cloth. The Attendant would have finished dinner by now. He wondered what she might have had to eat. Did she have a glass of wine? Was she by herself or with company in the cafeteria? With a shrug, he knew that, regardless, it was time to make his evening report.

“Attendant, go ahead,” said a soft voice, with more of a pause after announcing herself than normal.

Jaco cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders back to make his report. “The Biome-1 evening watch sends greetings and has the evening report ready for your review, ma’am.” 

“The Attendant acknowledges the Biome-1 watchman’s greetings and will review the report. Wunderly?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Is it getting any better?”

Jaco bit the inside of his cheek and raised his eyes, watching the night draw its blanket across the source of all his worry. He took a deep breath and responded with as much measured and deliberate professionalism as he could muster. “Attendant, ma’am, it isn’t. My observations contradict my review of the last two days of data. The logs show nothing out of the ordinary and, in fact, all parameters are trending as expected with the control model and recent insolation.”

“I see. That is a shame.”  A heaviness seemed to encumber her words more and more each night. It pained Jaco to provide information that likely only compounded her stress. “Remind me, which ACAMS operational checks were performed in the last twenty-four hours?”

“I performed the seven common gas alignment check of the spectrophotometer. All output voltages were within tolerance. I also performed temperature instrument output current checks and the five-day atmosphere filter inspection. The current checks agreed within one degree Celsius of the last alignment’s standard values. The filter inspection yielded no abnormal color or airborne detritus. If you’d like, I can get the monthly soil samples tomorrow, and maybe the laboratory will have them analyzed by Friday afternoon instead of Monday.”  Jaco reflexively smiled, despite the audio-only connection.

“Very well. Retrieve soil samples tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am.”


“Yes? Ma’am?” 

“This is outside protocol, but, see if there are any HEPA filters left in inventory. Exchange them for the sample filters in zone’s ventilation system. If we have enough, I want a whole biome representative air sample to see if we have an uncontrolled biological.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll check the stores rooms tonight.”

“Very well. Is there anything else?” 

“No, ma’am. The Biome-1 evening watchman wishes the Attendant a good evening.”

“Good evening, Jaco. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

‘Jaco’ she had said. He tapped his tablet against the meat of his thigh twice and left for the airlock. Once the gush of air passed over him, he thought to walk, or skip, toward the Facility’s hub to grab a snack, check the stores rooms, and then to think, sleep, and dream.

The following morning, Jaco donned his last set of clean green coveralls and left the crew berthing quarter for the administrative quarter of the central hub. Installed skylights let the unfiltered glory of a cloudless blue sky illuminate the good work that he, and others, were set to do that day. Despite the pleasant appeal of the rich blue sky, the Facility status screens in berthing’s hallways mandated limiting outdoor exposure to thirty minutes, with a requisite two-hour refractory period between sunrise and sunset to avoid heat-related illness. Temperatures exceeding fifty degrees Celsius were hazardous, and this day, like most days during this time of year, was to reach those temperatures.

When he approached the Attendant’s door, he stopped to straighten out his coveralls, hand-comb his hair, and brush some dust from his boots before giving a quick, one-two-three knock.

“Come in,” she said through a speaker. He pushed the door open to hear her say, “Ah, Wunderly. Good morning.”

“Good morning, ma’am,” he responded. Jaco looked forward to these morning briefs. In addition to just having the pleasant company of the Attendant, these meetings gave him a sense of importance. He was one of the most recently assigned personnel to the Facility, chosen due to his background in environmental engineering and laboratory experience. Biome-1 became his responsibility immediately upon reporting. By organizational structure, he worked for and belonged to the Attendant, Kirsten Mandrapilias. The first moment he sat down in her office for his introductory brief, when he looked into her smooth brown eyes through the red-rimmed eyeglasses, traced the crow’s feet around her eyes, stared at the errant hair draping her forehead, and the clear enamel-painted fingernails on delicate fingertips, Jaco decided he would never disappoint her. He thought her to be ten years older than him. Not that he minded. Age was a superficial constant, a number without meaning, a minor imprinted fact on the panorama of wonder and beauty that was the Attendant. She was without equal, earning her first of three doctorates three years younger than he had earned his Master’s. Dr. Mandrapilias was, allegedly, a recognized expert in her field. It was hard to validate these days since professional networking was not as easy as it had reputedly once been. According to cafeteria talk, the age of social networking and instantaneous global communications of populations-en-masse ended about thirty years ago. Communications now had the instantaneous speed of the Glory Age but the single point origin-to-audience network of the early 20th century.

“Take a seat, please. Would you like some coffee? I try to ration myself to just two cups a week, as it is harder to find than when I was college, but I’m more than happy to share.”  Without standing, she rolled in her chair from one desk to the other, pulling two white coffee cups from a drawer.

To drink a cup of coffee was to let her have one less, but to refuse would be to insult. “Yes please. I don’t, er, well, I think it’s probably been a few years since I last had coffee. My parents used to enjoy it.”

“Years?” She set down two cups, two-thirds full, on the desk. “I don’t think I could go that long. A world without coffee would be just too, too-” and there, her shoulders slumped. “Anyway. Commence the morning update, Mr. Wunderly.” 

The Attendant passed a jar of powdered creamer to Jaco and set a spoon and napkin down between them. Jaco, stirring in what seemed like an appropriate amount of flavoring, answered, “I found three HEPA filters last night. I installed one in the common sample inlet duct as well as in a single recirculation duct in both zones one and three. With the limited supply, I thought crossing the diagonal length of the Biome would give us the best picture of any airborne contaminants.”

Her lips twitched upward for a split second in approval. “We have all this data at our disposal, but the disparity in our information is extremely frustrating. What do you think? Remove ACAMS and all our certainty about Facility controls from the equation. What do you think may be causing all this?”

“I’m… I’m not sure. It’s evident just by the natural growth species that there is a problem. They’re no longer maintaining equilibrium. There are die-offs occurring in all zones. I’ve heard from other watchmen that they’re also seeing changes in their Biomes, but I can’t speak to the details.” Jaco leaned forward. “Ma’am, there must be an issue with ACAMS. We shouldn’t trust the data anymore, not without more invasive troubleshooting. On paper, everything looks fine, but with all four Biomes exhibiting changes, we know something is wrong.”

“I agree. These Biomes are our redemption. We need their proof that humanity didn’t successfully commit global genocide against sixty percent of the world’s species.”  She removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Do you watch the news, Wunderly?”

“Sometimes. I find it depressing. More die-offs, more environmental refugees headed north, more countries withdrawing from the UN, more economies collapsing. Doom and gloom on the daily feed.”

“Precisely. Which is why we need to figure this out ourselves. The engineering knowledgebase that put this place on the map is dissolved. We don’t have money to replace equipment.” She took a sip of coffee. “I went to Biome-1 and Biome-2 this morning. The Director chided me during the senior management meeting for not touring them more often. I was embarrassed. It was right for me to feel embarrassed. But after finishing those tours, I’m glad I hadn’t toured them daily as was suggested by the Director.”

“Why is that, ma’am?”

“Because it felt warm to me. Biome-1 and 2 felt warm to me. I am accustomed to the hub.” Jaco nodded. “I grew up in Maryland, Jaco. I attended college in Maryland. I finished my post-graduate work there before leaving for the UN. It is warm in Biome-1 for the mid-Atlantic model.” She sipped again from her coffee. “Why didn’t you tell me there was bleaching in the S-Pond?”

Jaco’s spine stiffened. “Ma’am? I’m sorry, what? Bleaching?”

“Yes Jaco. I asked the morning watch to perform a marine life surveillance, standard one-hundred square meter plot, littoral and benthic. You have bleaching in S-Pond. Did you not notice?”

“No ma’am, I’m sorry, I did not. I haven’t been on morning watch in months, and those sorts of surveillances are never in the evening watch schedule. And I, I don’t recall seeing any statement about bleaching in the turnover reports. I suppose I missed it, I must have missed it. Ma’am, I would not keep something like that to myself if I had seen a report about bleaching!”

The Attendant leaned back into her chair, clutching her coffee close to her chest and eyeing him, Jaco feared, with a little disappointment. “Maybe the schedules need to be revised. I don’t like the possibilities of skill-set atrophy or experiential knowledge isolation in our technicians. The symptoms are present. Our next step is to diagnose the sickness. Then we can worry about how to save our little Garden of Eden.”  She took a long drink of coffee and firmly set the cup down, locking a sad gaze onto Jaco. “I’ll have the morning watch collect soil samples and install the filters you found before your watch. Tomorrow, once relieved, you will provide the HEPA filters to laboratory for processing. I’ll have Rubin perform a logic check on ACAMS this afternoon. Keep an eye on the bleaching. I need to coordinate with laboratory, but ultimately, I want ten mollusks from the ponds, five from each. Lab will tell you which ones specifically. They will expect the samples, and they will have my instructions. We’ll figure this out.”

“Yes, ma’am. I will do everything I can.”

“Wunderly… Jaco. I know you will. I’m glad to have you here. Do what you can.”

Jaco left her office, ears burning and chiding himself for letting her identify something so obvious and alarming as actual bleaching of the S-Pond coral colonies. The Biomes had the last cultivated survivors from the world’s major coral reefs. The whole place was designed to be a sort of temporal ark, transporting locked-in climactic conditions before the atmosphere hit 700 parts-per-million carbon dioxide. When reefs in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans suffered cascading collapses, the UN finally acquiesced to the scientific community’s fifteen-years of lobbying to build the place they named the Species Survival Facility of North America, or simply the Facility to those who worked there. Universities from around the world sent staff to collect and maintain as many species as they could until the Facility was ready.

Jaco went back to his room, sat at his desk, and brainstormed away with his tablet and digital pen. Knowing the effect, bleaching, he drafted a tree chart of causes, causes of those causes, how they could be detected, and once detected, how to trace them. His mind raced. As he sketched the tree, adding branch to branch, he found that the common theme was the reliance on ACAMS. “Why not?”, he whispered. ACAMS was tied into everything. From its manual, he learned that the system was designed to provide a single interface to operate and monitor redundant instrumentation and climate-control equipment, with the philosophy that such a design would be resilient to hardware failures and eliminate control errors due to disparate software control schemes and program-to-program communication errors. Further, the Facility’s financial and industrial isolation forced them to rely on ACAMS. The world simply didn’t innovate anymore. ACAMS’s designers were gone, no help desk, no trouble tickets, and nothing comparable to replace it. The Facility’s isolation prohibited simply driving out to purchase commercial equipment to check against ACAMS. Finding truth must, by circumstances, be a completely internal matter.

He studied what he could of ACAMS, overwhelmed by the eight-volume manual, before he decided to take a nap before shift. It was his post-shift free time that would make more sense to devote to the plan.

Jaco’s first act after relieving Morgenstern, the morning watch, was to verify the HEPA filters were installed per instruction. Satisfied, he went about his two-hour tour of zones three and four before sitting down in the little shade of a juvenile oak to study the logs. Trend analyses of singular parameters and co-dependent parameters wasn’t enough to find the error among the numbers. After an hour’s fruitless review, he got up and commenced his two-hour tour of zones one and two. His muscles seemed to twitch with a desire to jump off path and get into and amongst the vegetation to study roots and leaves for signs, but he had to stick with the plan. Reality was clearly screaming there was a problem but mute to the details. Those details were in the logs, and he had to stick to the logs in this phase of the plan. He sat down again in the path between the ponds to read each day’s watchman’s remarks, going back in time. Rote, digital monuments to monotony; his eyes strained attempting to glean anything. Each week was a repeat: statements of turnover, statements of routine maintenance being completed, statements devoid of opinion or thought. In the tenuous permanence of digital records, Jaco found no trace evidence to explain the current condition. His evening report to the Attendant was brief. There was nothing new to report, and he had no intention of opining to her when that time could be better spent finding facts to discuss during his off hours. Thankfully, the Attendant didn’t press for information. She knew when to give him room to maneuver.

Midnight came soon. Jaco’s watch ended, tablet in his backpack, mollusks in two separate one-gallon sample carriers, and less disappointment than he expected. At least now he knew where not to look.

Around noon the following day, he knocked on the Attendant’s door. She wasn’t in. With nowhere else to really be, Jaco decided to lean against the wall and wait, looking at the tablet to again attempt tackling ACAMS’ manual. Few people passed by. There were now only thirty-two of them left at the Facility, and only nine of them watchmen. With the relative emptiness, it was easy to hear someone walking the inner curve of the hub before ever seeing them. So when she appeared and smiled to him, he was off the wall with his tablet neatly tucked under his arm.

“Good afternoon, Jaco. You sent me that message pretty late after your watch. Did you manage to get enough rest?” 

Her smile hadn’t worn off after he answered that yes, he slept well enough. I suppose you can’t be bleak all the time, even in this business, he thought. She opened her office door and gestured for him to enter.

She set a tablet down, its screen filled with text. “Ready?”

“Er, yes ma’am. I don’t have a full brief for you today. I just wanted to discuss some thoughts I had on pursuing this problem we have.”

“Whatever solutions you have, my door is always open to them. You don’t have to wait for these briefs. I think I was very clear that we cannot afford to get this wrong.”

“I understand. Ma’am, there are just a few possibilities I think we need to consider that we, or, at least as far as I’m aware, we haven’t yet.”

“Such as?”

He coughed lightly into his fist to clear his throat, then answered, “For one, we do have to consider the possibility of a virus, digital one I mean, um,” he faltered, his train of thought hitting a discontinuity as he fully focused into her eyes. Jaco resolutely lifted his chin and continued, “Um, ah, sorry. A software virus may have infected ACAMS. I don’t know if or why anyone would want to disrupt the Facility, but it remains a possibility. Second, we must have Supply do everything they can to procure back-up analog instrumentation if they can find a distributor at all. At the end of the day, we need to determine if ACAMS can accurately and reliably sense and report data.” She nodded, leaning back into her chair and giving her tablet a quick tap. Jaco assumed she started to record him, and, encouraged, pressed on with certitude, “With that said, if we assume it does, how do we know if the model itself is operating correctly?  Think about the Biome control structure. We see only the end results. We don’t analyze for the model. Imagine a concurrent failure of ACAMS and the model, where the model’s inputs to ACAMS are incorrect, but that’s masked by a separate ACAMS issue that prohibits a true output, like, I don’t know, falsely adding millivolts to output current. Or, both the model and ACAMS are operating as designed, but the model design is wrong, meaning everything ACAMS is doing is right, so far as that program’s concerned. Consequently, everything downstream of the model’s software, ACAMS included, is operating fine. All our control measures are working as designed, and the design is wrong. That possibility scares me the most. I don’t know what we could do in that case.”

The Attendant exhaled uncharacteristically loudly. As reserved as she always seemed, it caught Jaco off-guard. He folded his arms around his tablet, hugging it to his belly. The Attendant rested her chin in her open palms and murmured, “No one alive would probably know what to do at that point.” Then, with more resolve, “We can do this. Methodically, purposefully, we will find the problem. So you are aware, the logic check on ACAMS was satisfactory. The lab hasn’t finished with the samples you provided them, but I hope the results show no relative degradation compared to the true first generation.” The Attendant looked to her right, to her coffee maker. She narrowed her eyes in consideration, then pursed her lips and returned her gaze to Jaco. “The idea of a virus bothers me. However, I must believe that, in general, people are rational. Crime can be rational. Infecting one of the six facilities protecting the worlds species? Attempting to defoliate our gardens which serve to give future generations hope? Hope for humanity’s future? That is irrational, and I refuse to believe it a possibility.”

Jaco leaned forward and piped in immediately, “No ma’am, I disagree, I don’t think it is irrational at all! The rationale behind this place is to give future generations hope that the animals, plants, and world as our parents knew it will be available to them! But that hope is predicated on the assumption that all persons and all organizations want us to have that future. Before coming here, I recall there were op-eds and NGO’s believing humanity needed to be culled to restore the planet. What if one of those groups managed to infect ACAMS? Or what if one of the nations voting against the Eden Project decided to finally initiate a logic bomb to make us look like a failure to cut funding, in other words, their expenditures? At this point, I feel we need to create a full list of all possible causes, from most to least likely, and systematically attack each one until we’re satisfied. I have such a list ready for your review if you’d like, ma’am.”

Jaco thought he saw a glimmer of a smile cross her lips, and his grip on the tablet tightened. He watched her eyes, then bounced his gaze to her forehead, her cheekbones, her chin, to her hands. Once he realized his loss of comportment, he immediately straightened up and dropped his gaze to his knees, waiting for her response.

“Wunderly, you are certainly the most involved of all the watchmen. I wish I had at least one of you to cover each Biome. Please, send me what you have. I’ll compare your list to mine and see what you may have come up with that I did not.  Before your next watch, there will be updated directives for all watchmen.”

“I understand, ma’am.”

“And please get some rest. If we’re going to resolve this, I’ll need you and the rest of the watchmen at the top of your game.”

The rest of watchmen’ rattled in Jaco’s mind before he stood and proclaimed, “Ma’am, we will get to the bottom of this, and I’ll be the one to do it for you.” With that, he immediately stood, nodded, and turned to exit, doing so in such a rushed manner that he knew would shield him from any further exclamation or inquiry.

His feet carried him but a few paces before he contacted the security manager, Sven, who’s stubble beard, greasy blonde hair, and baggy, blue eyes shown clearly through the tablet’s screen.

“Jaco? Are you trying to walk and talk?” Sven’s teeth flashed in a grin.

“Yes. It is a talent. Sven, does your department have the ability to check Biome control software for viruses?” Jaco’s eyes flit up and down between the screen and his pathway back to his room.

“Department? That’s a kind word. I might. Why’re you asking?”

“We’re having problems in the Biomes. It could be ACAMS. It could be the interface software. It could even be individual equipment controllers lying to ACAMS. Frankly, I’m asking if you can check all the software for all things associated with them.”

“Jesus Christ, Jak. If I had the full department I’m supposed to have, including network specialists, it’d be a problem. I only got three guys now.” Sven pressed his thumbs into his eyes and growled. “I know SAFEGuard’s running signal continuity checks on the place’s major subsystems, including ACAMS, and it runs daily scans for any sort of malware, virus, whatever. Pros, cons, we’re so far out of anyone’s business, nothing new could have or should have gotten in, which also means no one from UN central or wherever has pushed a SAFEGuard update in, what, eight months? A year? If someone roped in a bug anytime recently, SAFEGuard would probably be blind to it.” 

“Well, our problem started more recently than that, but I see no reason not to try.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I hear you. Look, we’ll get on it. We’ll dust off some manuals and see what else SAFEGuard can do for us, see if there’s some other tools meant for IT guys. I mean, we can afford to go deep on it. This place has cameras and door sensors for a reason. I’m not worried.” 

Jaco smirked in appreciation. “Thanks, Sven.”

“Yup.”  Camera off.

Percent humidity, degrees Celsius, and insolation hourly parameters trended as expected for the transition from night to midday to dusk. Just like it always did. Jaco watched the perimeter’s golden crowned treetops sway lightly, just as expected, against the powerful recirculation fans. Another watch and no further answers. He checked his tablet obsessively through the last three hours of the watch for any missed messages from either the Attendant or Sven, knowing full well there had been no audible notifications. Duncan provided nothing substantial either. Turnover was as rote as any other day, save for the dull look in Duncan’s eyes. Jaco sighed just as a gust from fan 32’s start-up caught his hair and caused a delightful rustle along the grass at his feet. The view from his preferred peak sitting on Sir Hyman Watson’s bench was as beautiful as any day, with the peaks of the Rocky Mountains awash in the palette of the setting sun outside. Yet as much as he tried to focus on the natural glamor, gnawing worry kept his hands tight on his tablet.

Then a new noise among the rustle caught his attention, a steady noise, a pattern. He started to his feet, finally understanding the first-generation phrase ‘A good watchman hears the wind change’. Just as his knees locked, a familiar voice quietly offered, “It’s just me, Jaco. You don’t have to get up.”

Jaco sat back down, involuntarily clearing his throat and looking about the glass ceiling with a short, aimless nervousness as the Attendant joined him on the bench. She wasn’t in her typical white coveralls. She was wearing green, like the rest of the watchmen, and even her name was stitched over the breast pocket, like the rest of the watchmen. Jaco forced a smile to greet her, “Good evening, ma’am. What brings you out to the Biome?” On asking the question, he noticed she was not returning his smile. No, she was frowning, and the wrinkles from years of facing down untarnished reality seem to stand out against the golden light of another dying day.

“One part the Director’s nudging, one part wanting to see the sunset. I don’t know when I last saw one. I would prefer to think the raw amount of data from the four Biomes keeps me relentlessly busy and away from here. With nowhere else to go, though, that sounds like an excuse.”

“Well, ma’am, we do have a lot to monitor here. It’s enough to just keep track of one Biome, from my perspective. I can’t imagine having to stay abreast of all four.”

Her lips moved into a stifled grin, then settled again to a sallow expression. “Did Duncan say anything to you?”

“We did turn over. I’m, er, not sure what precisely you mean, ma’am?”

She shook her head and crossed her right leg over her left. “He’s left as of today. Still on station waiting transport, but functionally gone. I know you don’t watch much of the news, even if you had time lately. So you’re aware, a coalition of the eastern European nations and England, oddly enough, officially repealed all funding for UN projects and are recalling all staff from abroad. Jan and Yulia from Biome-3 are waiting until tomorrow to leave. Duncan, I think, took it as a sign and decided to leave now before it became absolutely untenable.”

Jaco’s back straightened, “Ma’am, do you think that-“

She interrupted him with a hand and locked eyes with Jaco. “No. Duncan was unhappy for a long time. His parents lost their business and savings during the economic crash last year. He stayed on because he believed in this project. I don’t know, because he refused to say much to me, but I think the apparent dissolution of the UN was the last straw for him. That’s three watchmen in effectively one day, and we still have a mystery here. I don’t have the personnel to do business as we always have. It feels like an unraveling, Jaco. It seemed… right, to watch the sundown tonight.” 

Jaco looked at her, words failing to build to coherency, his mind seized to a halt at her news. He dumbly blinked a few times and then craned his head back, slumping into the bench to stare at the glass ceiling. Moments then minutes slipped by in silence between the two as they watched the procession of light relent to the pin-pricked darkness. It wasn’t until the waxing moon shone clearly overhead that the Attendant left Jaco at the bench, to return to her office, to her duties, to strategize. Jaco, for his part, took his tablet back into his lap after she left, and, once he could muster the motivation, walked the grounds again, as a good watchman should.

A message came out late in the next morning. The Attendant was making an official plea, through the Director, for more staff. While they were now short-handed, twenty-four hour watches of the Biomes were officially unsustainable.  The remaining six of them would rotate through the Biomes on a daily basis, monitoring them for sixteen hours a day split between 0800 to 1600 and 1600 to 2400. To the individual, it would mean an eight-hour shift daily until new blood arrived or the Facility were shut down. The Attendant would also take on a different Biome to supplement the watchmen with her own eight-hour shift. She acknowledged in her message that this would put the respective Biome under less observation, but she could not absorb more between her other tasks and making the schedule work. In addition, once the blight affecting the Biomes was resolved, she would be comfortable with collapsing the watch teams to a four-days-on, four-days-off rotation of eight-hour shifts, from 0800 to 1600, with reliance on ACAMS for the other sixteen hours. Jaco was by himself when he saw the message come through, one of just seven people eating lunch in the sixty-man cafeteria. When he realised Biome-2 would be his responsibility the next day, he muttered to himself, “Looks like I’ll have to arrive early to get smart on what to expect there.”

He planned to arrive at Biome 2 at 1300, to give himself the extra time to tour the area and have a thorough turnover with Tiana. In the last few passing conversations, Tiana never mentioned much trouble in Biome-2, where equatorial conditions were modelled, so Jaco thought perhaps three hours should be sufficient. In the meantime, he wanted to visit Laboratory Services, so he made is way around the hub from the cafeteria, through the executive office arc, past the support services arc, and then to the badge-locked double doors of the lab. With a swipe, and knock, he stepped into the front office, where he caught a surprised Yufei with a cup of tea in hand.

“Jaco! You’re the first person I’ve seen all day! How are you? Tea?”  He inquired, raising a short, plain white plastic cup.

“Uh, no thank you. I was passing by and, well, I haven’t heard anything about the soil or air filter samples brought in from Biome-1. You were informed they were important, right? Well,” Jaco stammered, “Maybe not you specifically, but someone here in the laboratory at least. Right?”

“Yes. We forwarded the soil sample results to the Attendant yesterday,” Yufei quickly replied, nodding with certainty. “Cassie says she’ll need a few more days to cultivate bacterial and fungal samples big enough for her to be comfortable working with. Her words. But she says nothing unordinary from the filters that were brought in.”

Jaco cocked his head to the side with a grimace. “The soil samples are done? What were the results?”

“No radionuclides exceeding natural concentration. Soil moisture adequate. Umm, pH was low. Fixed nitrogen was as expected, considering where the samples were taken. Besides pH, nothing crazy. You know, I analyzed the soil, and,” he pursed his lips and carefully set his tea down onto the counter, continuing, “I really wish we had been better about taking routine soil. You see, it was apparently done every month, and we have plenty of data from Facility start until, um, about four, five years ago? I don’t know why they cut back. It’s stupid. A once a quarter sample? It is no good to track with.” 

Jaco bowed his head and exhaled with a groan. “How many trials were done with the soil?” 

“Five. Always five. The first had anomalies that I think were due to bad buffer agent. The rest were consistent.”

“What we have is one real data point. You can go any direction from a single point, can’t you?”

Yufei took his tea up again and shrugged. “No. Ground and gravity usually limit you.”

Jaco winced a smile. “Thanks, Yufei. I’ll see you around later.” Yufei nodded to him and turned toward the airlock separating the front office from the actual laboratory. Jaco stepped out.

No smoking guns, as the saying once went. Making his way toward Biome-2, Jaco called up Sven, hoping that salvation would be in security and the search for certainty would end there. After several paces, though, there was no answer. Jaco hesitated. The need for resolution conflicted with his need to stick with his plan. It was already 1255, and security was on the opposite end of the hub from the Biome-2 connector. He could walk there. On the other hand, it was unlikely Sven was in his office since he hadn’t answered. Jaco tapped his foot and looked at the clear glass screen in his hands, then murmured, “A watchman is never late.”

The personnel airlock adjacent to the connector’s eleven-meter roller door revealed the equatorial bliss of Biome-2: the scent of salt carried by artificial gusts, the humid warmth sticking to the skin, the light clapping of palm fronds, and the utter sense of displacement of stepping into a brand-new world.  He sighed in satisfaction as he synchronized his tablet to download the required logs, zonal maps, and species composition and information. Like Biome-1, Biome-2 also held side-by-side fresh and saltwater water bodies, but here, the saltwater pond was three times the length of the freshwater pond and curved around it, cordoning the freshwater pond from the rest of the artifice. The saltwater S-Pond-2 was oversized to accommodate the multitude of coral and tropical species and to ensure populations large enough to promise self-sustainability. Jaco noted the strip of land between the two pools as the place to conduct log reviews later.

Two hours of touring and familiarization passed, and he returned to the personnel airlock in anticipation of meeting Tiana. Jaco dutifully reviewed the logs, leaning against the wall, letting the minutes pass by until he realized it was already 1605. He checked the airlock entry/exit log and growled lightly when he saw the last operation was at 1317, when he walked through. He tried to contact Tiana. Nothing. He tried to contact Sumi. Nothing. He paced back and forth across the face of the airlock and attempted to contact Sven again. Nothing. He contacted Phil then Victor then Eli, nothing, nothing, and nothing. He reached out to the Attendant. Nothing. Jaco’s breath was deeper, rapid, sucking in the damp air through his teeth. There was no explanation for this. He looked over his right shoulder, to the Biome, the plants, the sounds of crickets, the breeze along the palm blades, and, taking in one more deep breath, closed the communications window on the tablet and opened up the logging program.  Regardless of it all, this Biome was now his Biome, he was a watchman, and a watchman does not abandon the watch. The book said Adam was forced to abdicate his responsibility and was cast to a land devoid of life. Jaco was not going to repeat that this evening.

At 0102, Jaco finished his second lap around the central hub and, having seen no one, reasoned that it did not mean that everyone was gone. It was late. The watchmen no longer supported the midnight shift, so it was likely and reasonable for support services and cafeteria services to shut down their respective areas. “No need to keep the warmers on if there’s no one to eat what’s warm, right?”, he whispered to himself. He paused at the Attendant’s door, put his hand against its cool surface, and returned to his room.

The seven-tone ring of an incoming message startled Jaco awake at 0633. Blinking and coughing, he rolled out of bed and swatted at his tablet until he managed to graze the “accept” icon.

“Morning. You awake?”

“Sven? Ugh… yeah. Mmph. Yes, I’m,” interrupted with an overpowering yawn, “I’m awake.”

“Sure, sure.”  Sven’s large blonde eyebrows leaned into the camera. “You look it. Lavon’s finished his first-round reviews of the Facility’s networks. You interested?”

Jaco rubbed his palm across his face and forehead and gave his right cheek a series of quick slaps. “Yes. Yes! Please, tell me, what did he find?”

“Goose egg. Everything is fine as far as he can tell. No intrusion. All software updated, as much as it can be. SAFEGuard, IEOS, your ACAMS, all of it is fine. We can always go deeper, somehow, after we figure it out, but the thing is, I don’t have evidence to warrant it.”

Jaco nodded and gave him a thumb’s up before hanging up. Yawning, he washed his face off in the sink and hastily dragged a towel across his jaw to dry off. Slipping on his coveralls, he stepped out in the direction of Biome-1, stopping only to fill a mug with caffeinated water from the cafeteria.

The strengthening sun cast its light into the Biome, and Jaco sat on the bench, cradling his cup of water in his hands. He was staring into its surface when a shadow touched his feet.

“Good morning, Attendant,” he said as she sat next to him, his words bogged with sleep, barely glancing at her.

“Kirsten, Jaco. It’s Kirsten.” 

The heaviness in her voice roused his attention. He set the cup down between his feet and looked over to her, suddenly shamed for feeling so affected by the inconvenience of a bad night’s sleep. Her hair was neat, kept, but the puffiness beneath her green eyes and dull gaze lent to his realization that she probably needed the sleep he had. “Ma’am? Are you okay?” 

I am. Jan and Yulia’s departure, and Duncan’s, led to a total loss of faith. We had two more voluntary departures yesterday afternoon. It’s become unsustainable. Faith was the only thing that kept this place together and its people on mission.”  Her long fingers waved to point toward the Biome below them. “And do you know what else, Jaco? Would you like to know what I found?”

“Yes,” he replied quietly.

“ACAMS is working fine. The error was so simple, so incredibly, stupidly simple!”

Jaco turned in toward her and placed a hand on her shoulder, “What was it?”

A sour smile, exhausted and bitter, crept to her lips. “We checked the calibration of every instrument over and over again to the last known alignment. We inspected every cable and cable connection. We checked all the software self-test logs. It came down to the fact that someone-,” she interrupted with a short, humorless chuckle, “Well, Morgenstern, performed the last gas alignment using composition standards from the 2050 inventory instead of 1950. By accident or intentional, it’s impossible to say now, he’s gone. He left with the rest of them. Supply’s gas inventory records show no deficiencies, but when I looked, I found the 1950 and 2050 atmosphere standards misplaced. ACAMS has been controlling to a higher carbon dioxide concentration since that alignment. Hence the forced warming and lowering pH. ACAMS was pumping outside atmosphere into the Biome to raise carbon dioxide. It’s not difficult to fix, but the damage is done.”

Jaco’s sighed, and he crossed his arms, slouching into the bench. “What do you think we should do? What does the Director think?”

She shrugged and slouched down with him. Her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose, so she folded them and put them in the left breast pocket. Kirsten was watching a cloud through the glass ceiling. She said nothing immediately, causing Jaco to lift his chin and look at her expectantly. His voice was low, offering, “Do you suppose there’s anything we can do? Maybe everyone else was right, maybe… ah, well, maybe it is time to just give up.”

Kirsten didn’t move, her eyes still fixated on the sky. “Jaco, what do you believe would be given up if we were to leave?” Just as his mouth opened to suck in air, she cut in, “Just some failed experiment, right? I’ve been trying to understand how I failed to keep my department believing in our mission. The Facility was more than just an ark or living mausoleum. It is what connects us, humanity, to the environments and animals that shaped our stories and history, to what we were before we did all-” Kirsten dismissively waved her right hand toward the sky, a simmering scowl finishing her sentence. “I’ll spare you the full lecture. If you needed it, you wouldn’t still be here. Right?” With that, she rolled her head along the back of the bench to look at him, eyebrows raised in expectation of a response.

“Ma’am, I-“


“Kirsten, ma’am, those who trained me here did everything they could to instill a pride in what we do, pride in being a watchman. I suppose this might be someone’s experiment, but it’s always been the watchmen’s responsibility. My responsibility now, I guess.” Jaco’s gaze wandered about the Biome’s panorama. A wistful smirk crept on his face, as he sullenly muttered, “Seems like I might have been the only one to pay attention to training.” He looked to his tablet, set in the grass. “I just don’t see how this place can continue. I’d like to think that the Committee will understand the extremis and send us replacements, but my group had the last accessions and that was four years ago. I… I just don’t know if we have the ability to keep up with the monitoring and management. This place could sink anyway, with or without us deliberately giving up on it.”

With a sudden sternness lining each syllable, she retorted, “Jaco, are you truly willing to look me in the eye and tell me you’re willing to give up?”

The words wrapped around his heart and pulled taut. Closing his eyes, he replied quietly, “No. No, I would not. I would never tell you that I give up. No matter how much I wanted to, no matter how rational it may seem to me, I could never tell you that.”

She nodded, and Jaco noticed, just as he opened his eyes to peek at her, that she didn’t look surprised, or even mildly comforted. Her eyes were still fixated on the sky, her expression not simply tired, but distant.

After some minutes, Kirsten slowly stood and moved behind the bench, shoving her left hand into a pocket and her right hand firmly gripped on the seat’s back to keep herself steady. “I believe we were conditioned to think scaling back consumption was impossible, that we couldn’t give up the conveniences we didn’t grow up with. Complacency didn’t lead us to this last ditch effort. No, it was… ohh, some complicated mess of diminishing sense of responsibility, messaging mismanagement, and a general… general loss of confidence in the scientific community. Partly due to brilliant demagoguery of showmen politicians and partly by mixed signals from the scientists. Read the older literature sometime. There’s widely varying accounts of when the worst of climate change would occur, 2010, 2020, 2050. Our knowledge sharpened over time, but there was no public patience for learning. Learning meant scientists were wrong, and this vulnerability was exploited so frequently and violently that it fractured every attempt at national resolve. Thus, here we are, attempting to preserve some of the pieces they left us.”

With an exasperated shake of her head, she paced back around the bench and stared into Jaco’s eyes. “As tired and frustrated as I am, I’m not going to let the inconvenience of losing my orderly, structured department with its nice schedules and routines be the cause of another failure. This isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s our problem. We’re the ones who live here. So, let’s go. If you’d like, we can share a cup of coffee. We have work to do.”

There still was no smile when she extended her quickly accepted hand to help Jaco to his feet. She descended the hill ahead of him, and he made sure to keep an eye on her in case she should trip. Once they were at the base of the hill, Jaco, opening the airlock door for her, cast another look at Biome-1. It had always been his responsibility, but for the first time, he doubted how well he understood that. Biome-1 was always shared amongst the other watchmen, until they quit, and he always felt he could leave, until the others did. He didn’t disagree with a thing Kirsten said. But, a burgeoning sensation in Jaco’s chest warmed his face as he silently acknowledged that, for him, there was but one other reason for his dedication, one that meant no more or less to the world at large, but the connection, the need for her connection, the need to do this for her was the true belief that underpinned his duty to humanity. Watching her walk beside him prompted him to disrupt the sound of their echoing footsteps. “Kirsten?” 


As soon as he had her attention, overriding self-consciousness wiped his mind of any depth and the words froze in his mouth. Redness crept to his ears, and he, with a pause, finally stammered, “I… ah, nothing. I lost it for now.”

This time she did smile, gently, touching his forearm briefly. “It’s alright. We will have plenty of time together.”

To that, Jaco Wunderly nodded and walked with Kirsten Mandrapilias toward the hub, to share a cup of coffee and plan on how to best tend to their garden, their little world.