The Problem in Sector 4


by Thomas Logan

IN THE OUTER CORNER OF HIS RIGHT EYE, he read the terse pop report from Sector 4: 3,200 pills short. Synthesizer offline. Scrolling commodity exchange rates and the face of his driver filled the remainder of that eye’s vision; through his left, the governor cycled through surveillance feeds from the company’s exclusive holdings across the planet Poros. Legally, on paper, no single galactic venture may monopolize mineral rights to an entire planet. But the competition had left; only their best—headhunted—had remained. Including Ray Mothram.

Thirty-two hundred pills, Ray muttered reading the report, causing his chauffeur to pause in lifting the governor from his motorized chair into the backseat of the terrain vehicle. Goddamn. If they, Dr. Amen and her brainiacs of Sector 4, were reporting this problem now, it meant they’d run out of solutions. Meaning the news wasn’t new. They’re behind in time and resources. His uncrippled mental feet lost purchase at the precipice of thought; today’s 3,200 was only the beginning. Ray Mothram, Governor of Poros, was saved from a plummet into hopelessness by the safety harness of the very pills whose supply was now limited.

Outside the all-terrain personal transport vehicle, the toxic fog that results from highly profitable industry—yes, industry, not the white-shirted, soft-handed, aproductive business of designing distractions, manufacturing wants, or ledger-domaining complex debt transactions. No, real industry, the governor thought. Something every Porosian was proud of. Just a few decades ago, the landscape sparkled resplendently with exposed crystal deposits—too bright for the naked eye and eclipsed only by various competing species of motile dark moss. They’d burned away the native nuisance with gasoline jelly, but the jagged formations still glistened somewhere unseen in Poros’ prismatic virgin lands and beneath the deadly orange dust. The original, billion brilliant pinpoints of rainbowed irradiance will surely return one day, glimmering along the edges of the smooth-mined pits long after the humans had profited and gone, a few seconds in geological time. Meanwhile, CentTech miners worked and remained inside, as people have done since the time of caves. It was some kinda life here on Poros. It wasn’t too bad.

Dr. Dani Amen’s low-res holographic form appeared beside him in the backseat of the vehicle. Being old rivals, both pressed for time, she began immediately:

“We should inform the people, sir, of the shortfall. Let them prepare generally and mentally before the ‘lousies’ spread. We’ll disseminate specifics as we have them.”

“No. No, that won’t do. I want you to kill them. All the buggers, all of Poros. Wipe them out.”

“I understand your desire to address root causes, sir. But annihilation, sir? We’ve already placed an order for pre-bonded base chemicals. They should be here within a week.”

Governor Ray Mothram was not used to insubordination or discussion or whatever the polite term was for Dr. Amen to “understand” his “desire.” He let his silence speak. The dark skin on his hands looked redder and felt rawer than usual. When travelling on other planets, he always took long, hot water showers. He never liked chemical baths. They were resource efficient, though. Therefore tolerable. He’d make his retirement off-world in another seven years. And time passes quickly when you dedicate yourself to hard work.

Dr. Amen broke the silence:

“Further, sir, and with all respect, forgoing any ethical concerns that an extinction of a native, and possibly sentient, life form poses, if it were possible, it stands to reason we or a competitor would have executed such a solution decades ago.”

“Your mother would find a way.” Ray Mothram let his challenge’s hurt settle into the verbal wound. Then he bluffed. “Or we can bring the bonders back online.”

The individual sectors’ bonders had required tremendous power, why the mayors eventually agreed recently to Sector 4’s (Science Division) centralization. To bring chemical combiners back online would necessitate significant resources to restore critical temperatures and to regulate within their tight threshold, rebudgeted energy that’d now have to come from somewhere.

“That’d take significant power, sir, just to initialize.” She stated the obvious. “The whole reason we—”

“About as much as it takes to run Sector 4. You are the most immediately expendable. Fewest persons. Noncritical operations. No loss in production.” His bluff was turning serious.

“I’ll explore your solution,” Dani said, beginning to fade out her transmission.

“Good.”

Governor Ray Mothram took out his jeweled pill case, and swallowed a capsule of courage dry. He told his driver to hurry the hell up. He’d already begun feeling lousy.

*          *          *

We must understand: Depression lowers efficiency. Companywide, we sacrifice millions of manhours to underperformance and absenteeism as a direct result of employee emotional impairments. The “lousies” pose a threat not just to our workers’ minds, but one aimed existentially at this company’s very heart and soul.

*          *          *

 “Governor, you’re unwell,” Dani Amen, dual doctor of business administration and biochemistry, diagnosed remotely. “Have you, sir, had a chance to—”

“Sleep? No.” Hoarding had begun. There were already two confirmed suicides. Nearly a dozen accidents. Absenteeism had increased. Someone had a loose tongue. There was no other “someone” than Dr. Dani Amen; only she had the audacity and motive. Sector 4 was her domain; the synthesizer her project. She could be staging a putsch.

Sedition provisions in their CentTech employment contracts allowed Ray Mothram as governor the powers of physical termination. But he needed Dani. She ran Sector 4, forward innovation base, the solutions center. He needed her alive to handle the critter threat. Then people would focus again. Life would continue on Poros. He wanted these critters dead.

“Sir, I’ve been reading back through my mother’s work…”

“Mother” was a polite fiction. Dani Amen was a duplicate. Despite wearing the same genes, they weren’t the same person. For one thing, her “mother” never called him “sir.”

A lot had changed in his past fifteen years on Poros. Give it another fifteen, and he’ll step down, get off-planet, get himself a new, working pair of legs or a fresher body, sleep in, take life slow. He’d thought it might be only seven years just yesterday morning, nearly twenty-nine sleepless hours ago—and maybe he could still control the spreading panic, keep production steady, find himself again more than halfway to retirement.

“Yeah? Well, what did she say, Dani?”

What Dr. Amen then reported was already known, a waste of breath and Ray’s invaluable minutes:

Classified CentTech reports recorded an immediate crisis of purpose and persisting melancholia, i.e. “the lousies,” accompanying encounters with the native species. Some number of these critters presciently had retreated underground, surviving the changing ecological conditions. Yet their influence remained. Like other crises in the colony, further exploration of the situation had been postponed in favor of more immediate concerns once a temporary solution, i.e. pharmaceutical mood stabilizers, tested successful. The first Dani Amen had revived her political predecessor’s study of the species for weaponization potential prior to her suicide a decade ago; that research had been sealed since. No reported critter sightings in over 20 years, though pills were still taken regularly throughout the day, everyday.

While Dr. Amen briefed, the communication bridge autosummoned associated images of a critter’s puggish face, its hard segmented body about the size of a rabbit, and its multiple, filamentary feelers serving for locomotion. These buggers were given various names, few neutral, none scientific, for knowledge of their hated existence outside of Poros was restricted.

The image flickered. Reception grew worse in the lava rain.

All across the nine sectors, Porosians were being distracted by ancient thoughts of purpose and mortality. The pills were their protection against these psychic attacks from the planet’s native species, and reserves hadn’t run out just yet. But panic had begun to spark and spread. If Dani could once and for all erase the critters from the equation, then there would be no future scares, no pills, more power, more resources. A governor’s core duty was to ensure productivity. The powers that be granted Ray Mothram the authority to do so by every means necessary. Poros needed the buggers exterminated.

“Sir?”

The first Dr. Dani Amen had left a legacy behind, an idealist’s goal of an entire society of balanced individuals. Lives improved beyond technology. A future based in investing in her employees’ happiness. To master the stars, we must first master ourselves, former governor Dani Amen sloganeered. Then made true. She brought with and left behind her as Poros’ first governor a new optimism toward life, that old confidence and company patriotism long thought extinct. She’d brought unity, cohesion, purpose. And these mindless aliens, not knowing thing one about what they do, could destroy all that. The unfairness of this caused in the current governor a creeping sensation bordering on rage, a heat expanding over a stone left cold for decades. He needed another pill.

“Sir, did you get all that?”

“I want bodies, Dani. Show me some goddamn critters’ corpses.” Nearly half a million workers were counting on him. The fate of a planet. “I want Poros scrubbed clean of every last one of them.”

*          *          *

 “How do you feel, sir?”

“How does it matter how I feel? I’m bothered by how I am.” The shipment of the synthetic backbone—ordered among other exotic compounds to conceal its purpose from stock-trading AI espionateurs and internal audit—was delayed. None involved in the shipment knew its urgency, and none could be told. “By. How. Things. Are.”

“We could perhaps begin construction on another reactor core, sir, then locate further efficiencies in the mines, compensate and reallocate to—”

“Are you suggesting we’re not mining at full efficiency?”

Ray Mothram understood what kept the wheels turning: regularity. The perception from outside Poros was that the allocated planet was a brutal place upon which to live. The company, it was said, took advantage of its contracted persons. Both were untrue, but, regardless, perception meant that often the most desperate, and the most brave, were those applying for corporate indenture. It was regularity that kept this place functioning, this kettle of colorful characters from boiling outside the white-and-black-lined order of their long days, kept Poros’ cheaply harvested rare mineral shipments flowing up the space elevators.

“No, sir. I was just hoping to inspire other solutions.”

“Quit stalling.”

The previous Dani was a great science leader; she initiated Sectors 0 and 4, i.e. the floating governor ship and solutions laboratories, the heart and the head respectively. Ray Mothram was young at the time, but he knew something was different between CentTech and the now failed company he’d indentured to Poros with. Rumors back then of these critters’ psychic rays affecting morale were dismissed as CentTech’s corporate psych ops. But then, one by one, competition left. Governor Dani Amen had assumed the governorship by then. She knew what she was doing; it was a better way of living she’d created. Through neurochemistry.

“We found, well, we found a vault. My mother had preserved nine specimens.” The hologram frowned. “It’s too early to report, sir. I want to be sure before about…”

“About what?”

“Whether to clone these to kill the rest. Mom’s critter specimens, sir, they weren’t dissected; they were mutilated. Mashed. Brutalized. She took great care to ensure each creature was extremely dead.”

*          *          *

We alter our bodies, sculpt them through exercise and labor, genetically through sexual selection and prenatal mods, chemically and surgically through diet, cosmetics, laser, injection, and scalpel. Work, wealth, and lifestyle literally shape our being. But what of the inside, who we truly are? It’s never the world that’s an inherently happy or tragic place. That experience exists solely inside the individual. So why not begin our paths to wellness internally, starting within to improve our without?

*          *          *

His offices and quarters inside Sector 0 looked strange. Snowy edges, colors lacking vibrancy, no field of depth. People seemed to suddenly appear; objects blinked in front of him. Ray’s thoughts, while not yet obsessive, had come to consider his dead legs regularly. Eighty-two hours since receiving Dani Amen’s warning, pill rationing had begun.

“Just cut the dose.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t do that.”

“Cut the goddamn dose.”

“That’s just it: We have been. Even yours, sir.”

“You’ve been putting me at a disadvantage when the continuance of this entire enterprise is at stake?”

No, there is something wrong in his brain. He needed to have it fixed. Her tinkering with doses, hampering him in a time of crisis, these weren’t core to the central problem. He couldn’t keep this hidden for long. He needed action on a solution to document in his weekly brief. Or he could lose his job, his stake in the company, his entire retirement portfolio.

“Listen, if you can’t kill’em, then just jam these goddamn psychic rays, Dani. Put a damper on them somehow. People want normalcy again.”

He opened his jeweled pill case, saw four capsules left. They could be sugar pills for all he knew. He slipped two into the crusher and snorted a concentrated dose of courage.

*          *          *

Increased surveillance and security had kindled resentment in every sector. Foremen reported equipment missing. Whether weapon or valuable barter undetermined. Informants documented escalating discontent and murmurs. Their coworkers might soon move to shut down Sector 4 for so carelessly jeopardizing their peace of mind. It was uncertain if the governor was safe.

“Sir,” the holographic Dani Amen presented herself and immediately announced, “they’re all dead. I even re-deployed our sensors to the far sides of the planet. Nothing. No discernable trace of life. The new atmosphere, there’s nowhere for them to survive, sir. It was inevitable.”

“Then the buggers spite us even in death.” That’s why so few had been seen. Something in their decomposition must release a—

“No, sir. I invented it.” The hologram frowned in a moment of consideration. “She invented it.”

Ray Mothram left the moment quiet for Dani to elaborate. Maybe he knew already. The sense of shock was missing.

“Sir, there’s this.” The hologram on the other side of the governor’s desk briefly lost resolution as Dr. Dani Amen moved too quickly in her lab for the floating capture cam. She returned petting a furled critter in the crook of her arm, its leathery feelers extended, lapping at her clothed shoulder and naked face. Seeing it, Ray’s upper body seized and became as paralyzed as his legs with terror. “I’ve run the tests. There are no pheromones or hypersonic vibrations. And I feel fine in this close proximity. It’s conclusively not the critters, even if they weren’t all dead.”

The world has so many dirty edges, little burrs that snag. He studied his hands.

She concluded. “There’s no such thing as psychic rays, sir.”

“I understand.”

“It’s not them. It’s us,” she offered.

“I understand,” Ray Mothram said. “I understand completely.” A shift and a blink of his right eye executed a prewritten command. The reality of the situation had changed, but the situation remained. On Poros, the lousies were real.

With the power from Sector 4 critical systems redirected, Ray’s right hand snaked instinctively into his pocket and shook his case—no rattle, empty of pills—as he watched the replicators in Sectors 1, 2, 5, and 7 slowly start up and Dani Amen’s panicked image fade. He rubbed at his grizzled face with his rough hands, thinking of non-chemical showers, waterfalls, and nontoxic rain. Replacing the fifty-two thousand resident engineers, tinkerers, and mad scientists of Sector 4 won’t be cheap. But he had to worry about the good of the many, and himself.

His left eye brought up the working memo for his afternoon’s weekly status report. Poros wasn’t for the weak. And for once, at least he didn’t feel lousy about his decision.

*          *          *

If you comprehend that what is wrong with you is an imbalance in brain chemistry, which the chemicals of a drug may resolve, then why waste energy to discovering and crusading against other wrongs?

—Governor Dani Amen, “Poros, Initial Findings”

Report to the Board

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