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The truck continued down Federal Boulevard, swimming through the perpetual shadows of one enormous building after another; the government district seemed to go on forever. Neither Clyde nor his father had said a word since dropping off Mrs. Sexler, and Mr. Sexler could tell his son was wrestling with something. "What’s on your mind?" he asked.
Clyde looked up at the enormous government buildings before responding. "Do you believe in God?"
"Of course."
Clyde hesitated as if he was unsure whether it was okay to ask: "Why?"
Mr. Sexler thought about his answer for a moment. "Because I want to, I guess. The way I see it, we can live our lives like they’re one big exercise in futility or we can live them with a belief in something bigger than ourselves. There’s a certain loneliness we all feel. A void in life. Every civilization, no matter where or when they lived–the Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans–they all felt that void and they all tried to fill it up with something–a religion–an attempt to understand God. If the religion is wrong, that’s not a reflection on God, just our ability to understand Him. It doesn’t mean we should stop trying. I like to approach my faith the same way Edison approached inventing: with every failure you get closer to the truth. You’ll notice Clyde that people may tear down religion, but they always put something in its place. Everybody wants something to believe in. I can’t think of anything better to put my faith in than God." He paused before adding, "But I sure as hell don’t believe the President is His son returned."
Clyde navigated the truck through a narrow entry gate into a complex of large concrete buildings with small windows. The complex resembled a fortress designed to withstand being sieged by an angry mob.
A sign above the gate read: Internal Revenue Service.
The largest building in the IRS complex was the Federal Repayment Center. Clyde parked out front and he and his father took a deep breath before entering. The air inside was stale and peppered with floating dust; it smelled like old books and with every breath you could taste the pages. It tasted like a Steinbeck novel. The walls would have looked light blue if it wasn’t for the weak lighting that painted them a sickly green. The building’s decor was so depressing it seemed intentional, like it was custom designed to dissuade visitors. Despite the building’s best efforts, Clyde and Mr. Sexler approached the woman at reception. She was seated behind bulletproof glass.
"I’m here to get my boat out of hoc," Mr. Sexler said.
"Have you filled out Form R-15?" She asked in a bored tone and without looking up. She was reading something but Clyde couldn’t see what. She wore a light blue golf shirt with a white collar, a poll-tested uniform designed to soothe angry visitors even though she rarely had any visitors to soothe. Her shirt was now trying to placate Mr. Sexler.
"Where do I get Form R-15?"
The woman sighed with exasperation. "If you don’t have a copy of the form, then you need to fill out Form R-7." Her tone conveyed that Mr. Sexler should have known this already.
"Form R-7?"
"The form to request Form R-15." Form R-15 was thirty-seven pages long. As part of an effort to save paper, the government required a form to request forms which, of course, just resulted in more paper being used.
"And where do I get that?"
"Over there," she said, pointing to the back wall. Her demeanor made it clear she was finding Mr. Sexler to be a real nuisance. Over the years, politicians made so many sweetheart deals with public bureaucrats that they were impossible to fire. They did their jobs accordingly. Because of their infamous F-you attitude, people referred to them as "pubrats."
Mr. Sexler went to the back wall, grabbed a copy of Form R-7 and began filling it out. Ten minutes later, he returned to the pubrat with form in hand.
"Aren’t you forgetting something?" she said.
Mr. Sexler waited for her to answer her own question.
"If you want to submit Form R-7, you need to pay the fifty-dollar filing fee. Gees! Is it too much to ask for you people to do your homework before coming in here making all kinds of requests?"
Mr. Sexler pulled his government-issued debit card out of his pocket and handed it to the woman. She swiped it, waited, then shook her head and handed it back to him. "Declined."
"It’s not an authorized transaction. Do you have any other way of paying?" Mr. Sexler shook his head and the woman spit out a disgusted laugh. "Then how were you planning to pay off your debt?"
"Does it really matter anymore? We’re all going to be dead in a few weeks."
"If it doesn’t matter, then why are you here?"
"Because I want my boat."
"Well, then you’re going to have to follow the protocol to get it." She went back to reading her book.
"May I speak with your manager, please?"
She answered without looking up: "If you want to schedule a meeting with the manager, you’ll have to fill out Form R-M-12. She’ll review your request and if it warrants her attention, she’ll call you to schedule an appointment."
"How long will that take?"
"Ninety days."
"We only have three weeks!"
"I’m sorry, but that’s the protocol."
"No one’s even here! She can’t possibly be busy."
The more someone argued with a pubrat, the more dignified and snotty they became. She finally looked at Mr. Sexler. "I understand that you believe we should just cast aside our rules to suit you. Everybody thinks their needs are special. Everybody thinks their needs are more important. And everyone believes the rules shouldn’t apply to them. Which is precisely why we have protocols and precisely why I have to follow them. You want your car back?"
"Then pay the filing fee, fill out Form R-15, and pay off your debt. And if you can’t, then don’t come in here bothering me, because I’ve got better things to do with my time." She smiled triumphantly, and went back to her book.
Clyde caught a glimpse of the jacket. It was called Living with Apocalypse. He shook his head in disgust, grabbed a fifty-dollar bill from his pocket, and slid it along with Mr. Sexler’s R7 under the bullet proof glass.
"I’m not going to process this. He doesn’t even have the money to pay off his debt!"
"Yes, you are." Clyde smiled. "Because that’s the protocol."
As they drove back in silence, Mr. Sexler looked like he was trying to eat his lower lip. He kept exhaling loudly and grumbling and looking over at Clyde, but Clyde was too lost in his own thoughts to notice his father’s distemper. The truck stopped at a light, and with the road noise gone and the engine idling, Mr. Sexler finally spoke: "Were you trying to embarrass me back there?"
"What? Why do you say that?"
"Paying the fee?"
"Of course not."
"Then what was the point?"
"I just didn’t want to give that pubrat the satisfaction of thinking she got the better of us."
"Didn’t she? You just paid her fifty bucks to keep my boat."
"It was worth it to see the look on her face. Besides … that fifty dollars wasn’t going to do me any good.
No one’s using money anymore."
"The government’s still using it."
Clyde nodded absentmindedly as his train of thought motored forward: No one’s using money anymore. "Maybe we can earn the money."
"A million dollars? In less than three weeks?"
"I’m just saying … if no one cares about money anymore, it might be easy to get."
"Yeah? Well if it’s so easy, Clyde, let’s see you get it."
Clyde didn’t respond, but he hadn’t let go of the idea. It occurred to him he knew one person who wanted something from him. Would he pay a million dollars to get it?
Clyde sat in his truck with the engine still running, staring at the observatory door. He only had a vague idea of a plan, but the actual details, the specific things he would actually say and do to make it happen had yet to come to him. He killed the engine, but continued staring. The slit in the door opened and the mechanical eye stared back at him. Don’t be a coward, he thought. He hopped out of the truck and approached the door.
"Did you bring the items I requested?"
"No," Clyde said. "Not yet. I want to know if you’ll make it worth my while first."
A humming noise came from the door and Clyde noticed the eye’s iris was moving. He guessed it was zooming in on him. "What will make it worth your while?" the door asked.
Clyde worked up the nerve to say it: "One million dollars."
There was a pause. "That is a large sum of money. What good is it going to do you? Is not the world ending?"
"What good is all this stuff going to do you?" There was a long pause, and as Clyde stared at the door waiting for a response, he had the odd impression it was smiling at him.
"You must bring all of the items to me before sundown. You are not to mention this to anyone. Not even your parents. Do you understand?" Clyde nodded. "If you meet these terms, I will pay you what you ask."
Clyde checked the time. He had about four hours. Without another word, he sprinted back to his truck.
"Where are they?" The President asked.
Jenkins looked at his map and shrugged. "They’re supposed to be down there."
The test biodomes built for Operation Colonization were hidden in the New Mexico desert at the bottom of a wide canyon. The exterior facades of the domes were camouflaged with the same burnt orange color as their surroundings. From a satellite in space, they just looked like small craters. So, as the members of Operation Legacy stood on the canyon’s rim, looking directly down on the biodomes, they were unable to see them.
Jenkins led the group down the trail leading to the canyon floor. The members of the task force all grumbled along the way, especially when they noticed there was a pass they could have driven through on the opposite side. Kennedy seemed to be having the worst of it; his man-boobs flopped like saddle bags on a trotting horse. As they got closer, they began to make out the shapes of brick-dust colored domes. The setting sun lent a glow to their outer shells. There were fourteen domes in all. Eight of them were built in a circle around one enormous dome that housed the "ocean." After the first five biodomes failed due to deteriorating air quality, scientists solved the problem by having the new biodomes constructed around a massive body of water that could act as a carbon sink and help absorb carbon dioxide emissions.
The original five biodomes, the ones that had proven unsustainable, were stretched out in a horizontal line twenty yards south of Biodome 6–the biodome connected to Oceandome’s southernmost edge. These five biodomes had been abandoned after the ocean breakthrough. Debuke’s team of Army Corps of Engineers, or ACEs as he called them, was building a tunnel connecting the five older biodomes to each other, and another tunnel connecting the biodome in the middle (Biodome 3) to Biodome 6. The eight newer biodomes were already connected to Oceandome and, thus, accessible to each other. So, by connecting the older biodomes, they were creating one large facility. They planned to install ceiling fans in the tunnels to circulate the air from Biodome 6 throughout the older biodomes, thereby passing along the benefits of the ocean and making the otherwise unsustainable biodomes livable.
Debuke pointed to the construction. "Once we open the biodome doors, we’ll move the livestock inside and then complete the tunnels."
Dr. White watched a small herd of cattle mill around the biodomes. "Are we certain we want cows?" he said. "I’m concerned about methane levels. Bovine expel a lot of methane."
"How much methane do goats fart?" the President asked. "Maybe they’d be better than cows."
"Enough with the goats already," Kennedy said. "You got your precious arugula."
"Why did you ask for my scientific opinion if you have no intention of listening to it?" White complained. "A popular vote doesn’t make it biologically sensible."
"We can’t keep questioning every decision," Kennedy said.
"We have to move on in the name of progress," Doe agreed.
"That’s rich coming from the woman who wrote the anti-progress bill."
A few years ago, the Wapols were concerned about technological advancements progressing too quickly and creating too many displaced workers. They argued the pace of progress would have to be regulated and limited to progress quotas. The bill had cost White a research grant.
"That bill saved jobs."
"I was trying to save lives. I still am!"
Jenkins squeezed the bridge of his nose. Arguments seemed to sprout amongst this group like weeds in a field. "Let’s take a look inside," he said. He nodded to Debuke who unfolded a copy of the schematics for the biodomes and checked it against the various buttes that dotted the canyon floor.
"That one," Debuke said, pointing to an unassuming butte. The others followed him and watched in silence as he felt his way around the butte, palming every protruding knob. The sight of it was oddly perverted and after he had felt-up several knobs, the others looked away in embarrassment. Finally, Debuke found the right knob and flipped it open to reveal a keypad. He punched in the code and a door opened exposing a sophisticated control room. He disappeared inside for several minutes while the others waited outside.
"What the hell is he doing in there?" Kennedy asked. The desert heat was causing him to sweat profusely; he looked like he had been caught in a downpour.
After a couple of minutes, Debuke returned. "I needed to override the time-controlled locks," he explained.
"It took you long enough," Kennedy complained.
"We should move that central I-mon inside the biodome so no one can break in from the outside," Jenkins added before leading the group over to Biodome 13.
The base of the dome was covered in a rock facade to help create the impression of a crater. Debuke searched this surface for another knob and when he found it, he flipped it open and entered a code into the keypad. The door opened and the task force stepped inside to find themselves standing face-to-face with a man wearing nothing but boxers and shaving cream. "Has it been five years already?" the man asked.
"Who are you and what are you doing in our biodome?" the President demanded.
"He’s one of the scientists who were selected to participate in the latest biodome experiment," White explained. Unease washed over the group. It had never dawned on them they might have to evict people.
"Hello, Sigmund," the man said. It was not a cordial greeting; the tone suggested he and Dr. White were bitter rivals.
White smiled viciously. "Hello, Albert. I hope you have your suitcase handy."
"Because you’re going to need to pack it."
Doctor Albert Black was sickly pale and his skin seemed to have been colored green by the lights in the biodome–a fluorescent tan. "I don’t understand," Black said.
"Of course you don’t. You don’t have a study-guide for the conversation."
Black was about to respond when Jenkins broke up the verbal joust and asked Dr. Black to gather all the biodome scientists together so he could explain the situation. Not only did they live in a bubble literally, they lived in one figuratively as well. They had no idea the world was ending.
The news of the apocalypse weighed down the small rec room. The fifteen scientists gathered were expecting bad news, but something more along the lines of their funding being cut. Finally, Dr. Black broke the heavy silence. "At least we’ll be safe inside the biodomes."
"Yeah, about that," the President said. "You’re going to have to leave."
"But that’s not right," one of the others complained. "This is our home!"
"No, this is government property," the President said.
"But we’ll die," Black complained.
"You’ll get over it," White said.
"Can I talk to you for a moment, Mr. President?" Jenkins asked. The others watched distrustfully as Jenkins pulled the President aside and began whispering. "We might want to keep these guys. They’ve been living here and will know how everything works. We’re going to need people who know how to survive in these biodomes."
"How are we going to accommodate them all? We’re already filled to capacity."
"It wouldn’t be a government project if we didn’t go over budget," Jenkins said jokingly. "We’ll find a way to make it work."
"We shouldn’t make this decision unilaterally. We should run it through committee first."
"Of course," Jenkins said. Despite having worked in President Poll’s administration for several years, he sometimes forgot that contentious decisions were only made under the protective cover of a committee. So, even though the need to keep Operation Legacy a secret made it a foregone conclusion, the newly-formed Biodome Residents Resolution Subcommittee deliberated for over two hours before voting to let the scientists stay.
"You’ll notice the lighting is being provided by light shafts," Dr. Black said as he led the task force through the halls. Engineers had developed a way to capture and redirect sunlight through tubes called "light shafts." This enabled natural light to be directed to interior spaces which in turn reduced the need for artificial lighting. "The use of natural light helps us reduce our energy consumption."
"Do all the biodomes look like this?"
"More or less. Except for the five older ones. They’re more outdated." He opened the door and escorted the group out into the large central biodome. "And here we have Oceandome."
"Wow," the President said as he scanned the large dome.
"The ocean is two-hundred square yards and just as deep. And there’s a cooling system that runs along the bottom to ensure the water temperature stays at the appropriate level."
"Why pebbles instead of sand?" Doe asked, crunching the pebbles beneath her feet.
"I forget exactly, but there was a reason," Black said. "Concerns about erosion, I believe. You’ll find everything in the biodomes is designed for a reason."
"Even if you don’t know what the reason is," White added.
Black ignored him and pointed to the top of the dome. "For example, the outer shell is double-paned. Because the outside is frosted orange to conceal our location, the second pane is colored blue. Otherwise, the light in here would be orange." He led the committee members around the pebbled coastline. It was just wide enough for three people to walk together side-by-side. A fourth person would have gotten their feet wet.
"And this is the only way the scientists could move from one biodome to another?" Kennedy asked.
"That’s correct. Although, in most of the experiments the scientists were confined to just one biodome. They wanted to test the efficacy of each biodome on an individual basis."
"Makes sense," the President said.
Jenkins suspected from the look on the President’s face that he had no idea what Black had just said. The less he understood something, the more the President would say about it.
"Why is the shore so narrow?" Doe asked.
"It’s really about the body of water here; it acts as a carbon sink and, of course, is a self-regenerating source of food with cordoned-off fish farms. They didn’t want to take up valuable real estate with beach. Wait until we get over to the other side. There are tide pools filled with all sorts of shellfish."
"I’m allergic to shellfish," Doe said. She seemed offended.
"Oh … Well, still, it’s quite an eco-engineering feat that in such a small area they were able to provide an environment that could sustain various life forms that naturally exist throughout the vast expanse of the Earth’s oceans and seas. From lobster and shrimp to tuna and salmon."
"Makes sense," the President said. "My administration has always been pro-ecoengineering feats." The President looked around the dome to appreciate his eco-engineering accomplishments. "Well, folks," he said. "Welcome to your home for the next four years."
This is the last excerpt from Medicine For Mankind. To continue reading, click here.