Human Monoculture

Reading Time: 10 minutes

At an engineering facility for Star Power, a corporation dedicated to using fusion as the ultimate source to power all the world’s needs…

1

A small crowd gathered around a couple of men working at one of the engineering station consoles in an open area away from the cubicles. I walked to my cube to start the working day, passing by John, one of my coworkers who loves fishing more than life itself. 

“Good morning, John. How was the fishing trip?”

“Unbelievable. I literally caught a U’Haul’s worth of fish. Yellowfin, yellowtail, bluefin, dorado. Nothing less than fifty pounds.”

“Wow. What are you going to do with that much fish?”

“Sushi party tonight at my place. I’ll deep freeze the rest. Come on by.”

“Cool. I’m in.” 

“Hey John. Who’s that guy over there working with the boss?”

“He’s a heavyweight scientist from corporate. Supposed to be a genius. He won the noble prize in warped core technology. Warped core technology will power the entire world when it’s ready. It would give us as much energy as the Earth gets from the sun all day, every day. You should check it out.”

“How much energy does it produce now?”

“The demo is only running at ten thousand megawatts of continuous energy.”

“Haha. That’s about billionth of the sun’s output. Either the core has to get a lot bigger or the world a lot smaller.”

“That much energy from one prototype unit could easily power a hundred facilities like this one.”

“Sounds great. It sounds like the world I want to live in, but I will have to see it another time. I have a visitor coming by in a few minutes, an engineer from the high-energy physics department who is going to help me with my plasma equations.”

“Alrighty. I will catch up with you later. I’m headed over to the demo.” 

John walked off to join the crowd at the engineering station. I ducked into the break room to fill up on coffee, black and strong. Will, another coworker, was absorbed in a book with his legs crossed, sipping a cup of coffee. The coffee pot was empty, so I started up a new brew.

“How’s it going Will? Have a good weekend?”

He tipped his head down to peer at me over his readers. “Too short.”

“What are you reading?”

“Moby Dick.”

“Damn, you whale,” I sounded off in my best Ahab. “Spoiler alert, the sperm whale eats everybody, and the book ends.”

“Haha. Funny. Don’t you have some physics to do?” He went back to his reading.

When I returned to my cube, the engineering guy still wasn’t there. Beverly poked her head into my cube. She wore a crazy, skin-tight, tiger print body outfit with large brass hoop earrings. 

“Hi. Wanted to remind you we have a tiger team meeting this afternoon at 2 to discuss out of the box ideas to solve the plasma leak issue.”

“You are really taking that tiger team role to heart.”

I laughed. Beverly didn’t even smile. So much for levity. 

“I haven’t forgotten about the meeting, Beverly. I have someone coming over from physics to discuss equations.”

“Ok, see you at 2.” 

I was starting to wonder if the guy even existed. While I waited, I brought up Google. I queried for the Earth’s surface area to discover it is 196.9 million square miles, then for the total energy reaching the Earth’s surface from the sun to find it is 173,000 terawatts continuously. That’s a hell of a lot of energy. But with only ten thousand megawatts of constant energy supply, the best one could do is power a big city.

A guy poked his head in the cubicle. He introduced himself. “Hi. I’m Jordi. I’m from the high-energy physics department. My boss told me to stop by to discuss some equations?”

“Hi Jordi. Yeah, let me bring it up on the monitor.” 

I turned to the monitor to find the folder on my worksheet on the hard drive. Waves of nausea passed through my head. The display on the screen distorted like the ripples of a rock thrown in a pond. The monitor pulsated in sync with my nausea. Papers flew about the cubicle, then everything was calm again. 

“What the hell was that? Jordi, did you feel that?”

When I turned to see if Jordi was ok, nobody was there.

2

I stood up and looked outside the cubicle. “Jordi? Jordi?” I looked over the cubicle partition with visibility to the whole room. No Jordi. Where the hell did he get off to so quickly? I checked the break room. 

“Will, did a guy stop in here a minute or so ago? His name is Jordi from the high-energy physics department.”

“No. No one else has been in here beside me since you left.”

“Hmm. The guy just up and disappeared on me. Sorry to interrupt your quest to harpoon the sperm whale.”

Will looked at me, puzzled, lowering his book. “Sperm whale? “What’s a sperm whale? Is that some kind of sex joke?”

“Yeah. Haha.”

“That kind of talk is inappropriate for the work place, you know.”

“Right. Sorry. Catch you later.” What the hell? He is the one reading the book about the sperm whale. So I left him reading his spermless whale book and walked over to the demonstration to see if Jordi was in the crowd. The corporate scientist was looking over his assistant’s shoulder at the monitor. The monitor showed the same energy pattern that I had seen rippling across my screen. 

I saw John and worked my way through the standing audience. When I reached him, I whispered, “Did you see that guy Jordi from the high-energy physics department?”

John whispered back, “No. Never heard of him. Check this out. The energy wave on the screen represents ten thousand megawatts of energy pulsing in the warped core. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, you already told me. Just 17 thousand more megawatts to match the sun’s 173,000 terawatt output on the Earth.”

“What are you talking about? It’s only a thousand terawatts more to go.”

“It’s 17,000. I just looked it up.”

The corporate scientist looked in my direction. He asked the audience, “Does someone have a question or a comment?”

I ducked out and went back to my desk. Still no Jordi. So I tried to look him up in the online corporate registry, but the search didn’t find anyone by the name of Jordi. 

Then, while I was scratching my head trying to figure out what happened to the guy, Beverly popped her head into my cubicle. “Just wanted to ask if you are going to present anything at today’s skunkworks meeting?” 

She entered the cubicle wearing black yoga pants and a nylon-fabric, skunk-print blouse. 

“Skunkworks? I thought it was a tiger team?”

“What’s a tiger?”

“You were wearing a tiger-patterned body outfit not ten minutes ago.”

“Whatever. I’ve been wearing this all day. Are you going to present or not?”

“I don’t have anything prepared. I can’t find that guy Jordi that was supposed to help me with my equations.”

“Jordi? I don’t think I know him. See you at two.” With that, she disappeared back into the sea of cubicles, leaving me to wonder what the heck was wrong with everyone and what happened to that guy. I leaned back in my chair to stare at the ceiling. A pulsating hum radiated from the fluorescent tubes. Another wave of nausea passed through my head in sync with the flickering and surging of the lights. I stood up to look over the cubicle wall. As far as I could tell, nobody acted like anything out of the ordinary had happened at all. 

3

I sat back down. I looked at my monitor and did a double-take. The query that I had run showed that the total square mileage of the Earth was only 5.9 million square miles. I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to compute the radius of the Earth to determine if the query was correct. The answer would have the Earth’s radius at only 1000 miles instead of 4000, which I know was the right answer.

I ran over to the break room. “Will, did you notice the lights flickering and surging?”

Will answered, “Everything pretty normal in here.” 

I looked at the cover of his book. It had a picture of an otter on it. I asked him, “What happened to Moby Dick?”

He looked at me funny again. “This is Moby Dick.”

“What’s with the otter on the cover?”

“Haven’t you ever read the book? It’s about a rascally otter that drives the captain of a river boat crazy.”

“What about the whale?”

“What’s a whale?”

Will didn’t laugh or sound sarcastic. It sounded like an honest question. So I asked again, “Are you sure you didn’t feel anything or see the lights flicker?”

“No. I think I would have noticed something like that.”

I left the break room and found John still standing at the ongoing demonstration.

He nudged me with his elbow, “Can’t wait for those bluegills tonight. I have a whole cooler full of them. I sure scored big this weekend on the lake.”

“Huh? I thought we were having sushi from the all the tuna you caught?”

“Tuna? What’s a tuna?”

“Big fish. Lives in the ocean. You just caught a U-Haul’s worth of them on your weekend fishing trip.”

“That sure sounds like a fish story to me. Just bluegills. I mean, you don’t have to come if you don’t like bluegills.”

“Uh, no problem. I’m just giving you a hard time,” deciding to play along. Whatever was going on was giving me a hard time, and it seemed like everyone was in on it except me. From the engineering terminal in front of the scientist and his assistant, I heard an audio pulse identical to the hum of the fluorescent lights a few minutes ago. I started to think that whatever was going on had something to do with this experiment.

So I asked the corporate guy, “What causes the sound pattern?”

The corporate scientist looked up. He said, “That’s the simulated wave pattern of the warped core energy wave. Any other questions?”

“Yeah, is it possible that some of the energy is leaking from the warped core?”

“I assure you, if energy was leaking, the sensors would detect it and the safeties would automatically shut the field down.”

“What about the power surge in the lights?”

The scientist asked, “What power surge?” 

People looked at me, shrugging. 

I said, “The one that happened just a few minutes ago.”

People shook their heads like I was crazy. John nudged me in the ribs and tried to surreptitiously tell me to shut up with a finger to his pursed-lip mouth. Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “a sane person to an insane society must appear insane” popped into my head. So I shut up. Everyone went back to watching the demo. 

Then it happened for the third time. 

4

I grabbed John’s arm and said, “Tell me you didn’t see that?”

“See what?” he asked while prying my fingers off his bicep. 

“The lights and the humming. I felt it go right through my head.”

“Maybe you’re coming down with a migraine or something. Migraines can make you hallucinate. Don’t sweat it if you want to cancel out on the tilapia fry tonight. We can do it another time.”

“Tilapia. What about the bluegill?”

“What’s a bluegill?”

“Look. The surges have happened three times. Before the first surge, you said you caught a U’haul’s worth of tuna. After the first surge, you said you caught a cooler full of bluegill’s. Now, it’s a tilapia fry. You don’t remember? You know every species of fish on this planet bigger than a minnow.”

“That’s not saying much. The only fish species in the world is pond-farm grown tilapia.”

“Are you serious? What about the thirty rods you own optimized for the size and weight of every species?”

“You’re migraine must be a doozy. Maybe you should take the rest of the day off.”

Beverly walked up, now wearing a plain pink blouse, and said, “He can’t go home. He has a meeting at ten. Are you coming?”

I replied, “I thought it was at two.”

“Don’t you read your emails? I moved it up to ten and it’s in the engagement room.”

“You changed.”

Beverly blinked her eyelids a couple of times and smiled, “How sweet of you to notice; I just bought this over the weekend. I’m trying something a little more daring than usual.”

“Have you ever considered wearing a tiger patterned dress or a skunk image pullover?”

“You called them tiger and skunk? No. No. Never heard of them. Are they new designers?”

“Nevermind. I’ll be in the meeting room in a couple of minutes. I need to stop by my desk first.”

I stopped at my cube. On my desk was the book Moby Dick with a sticky note from Will. It read, “This is a great story about a guy and his sidekick who roam around the city returning purchases they hated. I think you will like it.”

On the screen showing the query, the size of the Earth has shrunk to 84.7 square miles, a decent size for a city. I considered whether I was in an episode of the twilight zone or not. It had to be the warped core experiment somehow. I raced back to the engineering station to ask questions and demand honest answers. The demonstration was over, and only the scientist remained. He bent over the computer, typing equations and code.

I shouted out to the scientist, “Hey! Hey! What the hell is going on here?” But before he answered, the fourth wave hit, stopping me in my tracks. I saw it; the scientist’s body phased in and out of sight. 

5

After the wave passed, the scientist solidified into his solid, impassive, stoic self. 

“I saw that,” I pointed at him accusingly. “You know about tuna, tigers, and whales, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“What the hell is going on?”

“Thought, space-time, and power are all integrated into the mesh of the universe.”

“So. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You are making this happen. I’ve been trying to pin down the source of the anomaly all morning. I think you are the anomaly.”

“Me? I’m the only sane one here.”

“Your thoughts somehow became entwined with the warped bubble. You created this world out of your thoughts. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

“I don’t have the power to recreate the world. Even if I could, I wouldn’t create a world without wildlife. What happened to the whales, the tigers, the bluegills, and the skunks? I don’t want to live in a human monoculture centered on my work in a world the size of a small city. I want a world full of diversity in culture, language, and wildlife. This isn’t the world I want; this is the world I want to get away from. You did this, not me. Fix it.”

“Hmm. Do you remember what your thoughts were when you first sensed the warped field?”

“I was thinking the guy from the high-energy physics department didn’t really exist. He showed up as I was trying to figure out how much energy it would take to power the Earth. No, wait. I was thinking that with ten thousand megawatts of continuous energy, you could power the Earth if it was the size of a decent size city.”

“Oh my. We have a serious design problem. I didn’t expect the warped field to fixate on random thoughts. I don’t even know where to begin to debug this problem. Corporate isn’t going to like this. It could set our product release back by years.”

“To hell with corporate. What am I supposed to do right now?”

“As you saw, I won’t be able to stay in this world much longer. I’ve tried everything possible.” The scientist briefly faded but returned.

He advised, “The human brain is architected for scaleless habituation.”

“Is that your way of saying I will get used to it?”

The scientist pulsed and phased out of existence.

 I shouted at the missing presence, “Hey! Hey1 Don’t leave me here. I don’t want to live in a world like this.” Everyone in the office stood up, looking over the walls of their cubicles. Beverly waved me over to the meeting room.

6

Six months later.

I was on John’s deck looking out over the city as he grilled.

John asked, “How did you solve the energy problem for powering the entire world?”

I answered, “I just thought about it.”

John said, “Well congratulations. I hope you are enjoying your vacation.”

“I think I’ve seen every inch of this city.”

“I wish I had the time. Here, try this.” 

I walked over and sampled a bite of the tilapia. “Not bad. I think one of your better efforts.”

“Thanks, I added some new chemical additives to the coating. So what’s next for your vacation?”

“Will gave me a novel to read, Call of the City. It’s about a pet thrown out onto the streets of the city.”

“Sounds like a good read. Still seeing Beverly?”

“Yeah. She’s cool.”

“Snazzy dresser with all those bright-hued shirts and damn good looking too. Life is good?”

“I miss the good old days.”

“Forget the nostalgia dude. These are the good old days.”

Bubble Dome City

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dear Liza,

I’m not so sure a visit to Bubble Dome is such a great idea. It might sound like a great vacation spot. The temperature is a comfortable seventy degrees. Room temperature. It’s a pretty big room, at over ten square miles. But it’s still a room. The weather never changes. It never rains or snows or gusts or anything else on the inside.

There is not much to see. I can walk anywhere in the city in less than an hour. We have potted trees spaced out evenly on the walkways. Everything else is a building.

I live in an apartment on the eighth floor with my mom, dad, and brother. It’s 72000 square inches, one of the largest in the building. We have a garden on the roof and a fruit tree spliced with oranges and lemons and limes. I like it when we get to eat exotics. For a class trip, we went to the hydroponics tower. Each floor grows rows and rows of food. It’s where most of our food comes from. There is an enclosed aquarium outside of the dome. Our teachers told us it is filled with tilapia but the water is so murky I couldn’t see them. I hate tilapia. My mom says I have to eat it because it’s the only source of complete protein in my diet.

The outside is so different. Nothing but dirt and sand as far as the eye can see, as barren as the surface of Mars on the outside, judging by the pictures. Sometimes I can’t even see the outside through the thick ozone and methane and hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide haze that hangs over the dome. My teacher says it’s as smoggy as the atmosphere of Titan and just as lethal. Even if you could breathe the atmosphere, the heat would cook you. It might as well be the surface of Venus.

Someday, I will be old enough to walk outside the dome in a spacesuit. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk for hours and to feel like you are not getting anywhere. Or to look back and see the dome, my whole world, as just a little bubble on the horizon, as I’ve seen in pictures.

It would be awesome if you could visit, but I think you would get bored pretty quickly. And to be quite honest, I think I would rather visit your planet. There just isn’t that much to do or see here on Earth.

Terrestrial Torpedoes

Reading Time: 2 minutes

A soldier escorts a civilian to the CO standing in the center of the command center.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the mission observer here for oversight on Operation Lunch Delivery to observe the effectiveness of the CMCs.”

He presents his credentials to the CO. The CO nods assent. The mission observer stands with the CO at the heart of the operation.

“When do you send in the CMC’s?” asks the observer.

“We send in the TTs during rush hour.”

“TTs?”

“Terrestrial Torpedoes. That’s what they call ’em in the cartillery platoon. No one calls them Cruise Missile Cars except the engineering nerds.”

“Why launch at rush hour?”

“We know the traffic patterns. Easy to get lost in the crowd. Everyone is too busy shouting at each other to pay much mind to a bunch of nondescript cars.”

“So what is the plan?”

“They’ll drive in and park as close as they can to the target without raising suspicion.”

“Won’t a driverless car raise suspicions?”

“Barely, there not as ubiquitous as they are stateside, but they’re not uncommon. And the car bodies all come from a local business. They should blend right in.”

“You aren’t going to set them off during work hours, are you? It would mean a lot of collateral damage.”

“Yes, the mission is to take out enemy combatants. Targets are very specific but there is always collateral damage. That is the business we are in.”

“Now what happens?”

“Once they’re on secondary location, they’ll phone in and await orders. We’ll wait until lunchtime before removing the safeties and ordering them to their targets with their lunch orders.”

“You mean launch time and launch orders?”

“Launch time is lunchtime. This is a lunch launch. The torpedoes are all disguised as food delivery vehicles. The lunch orders are pizza to go.”

“Pizza to go boom,” the observer says wryly.

“We’re ready for launch now.”

A background voice, “Launch in 10..9…2..1..0. Missile fleet away.”

The observer studies the board for situation awareness. “It looks exactly like the online street map I used to drive into work today right down to the orange and red markings for traffic congestion.”

“It’s the same app, just showing our TTs.”

Red push-pins show on the road map identifying the land missiles. The fleet of TT’s moves out from its launch position and immediately split up. Most of them are stuck in traffic.

“Do they get road rage?” jests the observer.

“Of course not. They don’t get angry or frustrated or impatient. They just drive. That’s what they do. That’s all they do. Well, except at the very end.”

“Not exactly how I envisioned the terminator,” says the observer, recognizing the line from the movie.

The background voice says, “All torpedoes on secondary location and ready for target launch.”

“So now what?”

“We come back at lunchtime for launch.”

“And then?”

“Lavese Los Manos.”

“Huh?”

“We clean our hands of the affair and get back to work.”

P.S. The third in a series of car shorts. (Is car shorts a thing?) See http://www.thetembo.com/clip/2019/11/24/feral-cars/ and http://www.thetembo.com/clip/2020/06/27/courteous-driving/