The Future of Work: Maximum Outflow, by Adam Rogers
“When normalized on a per 1,000-short-ton basis, the estimates indicate that 1,000 tons of recycled material attributes 1.57 jobs,
$76,030 in wages, and $14,101 in tax revenues.” —“Recycling Economic Information Report,” Environmental Protection Agency (2016)
Just move them, Iggy said. He and Jia were climbing down a ladder, her first. Now she’d stopped. Iggy had a big bag over his shoulder and couldn’t fit into the narrow compartment until she got out of the way.
Eight sci-fi writers imagine the bold future of work.
Fighting back a gag, Jia extended her arm through a curtain of coils. They were warm and clammy. She squeezed through.
Past the coils was a larger space, and the air was cooler. Iggy scrambled in behind her. “AJ showed you this?” she asked.
Iggy put down the pack, put his hands on his knees. Breathed hard. “I fell through the membrane coils. AJ had to come get me,” Iggy said. Grief and fatigue strangled his words. “Come on.”
Iggy didn’t know anything about anything back when AJ pulled him out of school. As a kid, maybe 9 years old, Iggy knew that the whole world was inside. Home was Building 8; school was Building 2. One of the teachers told AJ that Iggy had a knack with tools but not much else, and AJ made Iggy a tech.
AJ showed Iggy the other half of things. The guts, he called it, every duct, pipe, tube, and pump that held together the cluster of buildings and domes. Outside: nothing left to eat, drink, or breathe. Inside: all the people, on top of an oozing, respirating clot of innards. Nobody knew the guts better than AJ.
One morning about a week ago, AJ hadn’t woken up. That was it. Iggy would be changing filters on his own from now on.
A few days later, Iggy had gone out to swap a HEPA-9 in a little one-room near an exterior wall, and something had been different. The seal wasn’t pliable, and it had an almost imperceptible grain. Everyone’s air filters had HEPA-9s. If something was wrong with them …
He checked. Air handling: nominal. Particulates: nominal. Microbiome: nominal. Even the nominals were nominal. Still.
That night he’d shown up at Jia’s carrying a bag half his size. “Something bad is getting up here, and it killed AJ,” he’d said. He could tell she didn’t believe him. It didn’t matter; Jia worked in the protein reactors, diving in tanks full of nutrients. Iggy was going to need her.
“Everything connects to everything,” Iggy said, helping Jia leap a gap in the catwalk. “Filtered airflow, passive and active water purification, solid waste conversion. We even recover most of the volatiles and combustion carbon.”
They shimmied down another ladder. “We live in a terrarium,” Jia said.
“Well, but, see that red line up there?” he said. Amid crisscrossing square metal air handlers, a red hose snaked into and out of view. “That’s ULW. Unrecoverable Liquid Waste. The last little trickle from every recovery system in the city.”
“Where does that go?”
“The manual says we recycle so much that it’s like microliters. It just kind of osmotically exits the wall.” Iggy turned a wheel set into a metal door, which hissed and chunked. Jia tried to unsee the biohazard trefoil on the wall.
“But the guts are pulling instead of pushing, and they pulled something in that killed AJ,” Iggy said. He handed Jia his tablet. “You’re better at this than me.”
She looked. “Wait, these raw protein numbers … and this is ULW? A week ago the inputs stop syncing to the outputs.”
“Yup,” Iggy said.
“A mythical, forgotten drain. And it’s clogged,” Jia said. “Crap.”
At a hatch set into a concrete floor, Iggy dropped his bag and unzipped it. “I’m pretty sure we’re the first people in here since they built all this,” he said.
“Spectacular,” Jia said. “Also, disgusting.”
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From the bag, Iggy handed Jia a respirator. He took out a body suit made of chemical-resistant polymer, with weighted booties and a clear helmet. He climbed in, zipped up, and attached a carry-bag to his belt.
Jia pulled out an umbilical cable and an air handler. There were O2 cylinders. She looked at the gear skeptically. “You sure about this?”
“Well, I’m doing it.”
“All right,” Jia said, her tone shifting to professional. “If your O2 level gets below 20 percent, I’m going to—”
“Jia.” He smiled and pointed at the breathing gear. Her specialty, not his.
“Copy that,” she said, and plugged the umbilical into the port at his side. Iggy locked down his helmet; she checked the seal. Cool air chugged into the suit.
After making sure Jia had her mask on, Iggy opened the hatch. He popped on a light and saw 10 rungs of a ladder leading into a blackbrowngray muck.
Jia gave him a thumbs-up and Iggy climbed down. He could feel the stuff against his legs, and then chest. He resisted the instinct to hold his breath as it came up around the mask and blocked his vision.
After a few minutes, Iggy’s feet touched a floor. He reached out and felt a wall. That was good. He shuffled left, keeping the wall under his hand until he felt a ridge, and the texture under his glove changed to something spongy. A drain; a clog.
The stuff came away in clumps, which Iggy crammed into the carry-bag. The sludge around him began to shift, and Iggy kept pulling. He took a step toward the last of the clotted mass—and felt a tug. He couldn’t move. The umbilical was stuck. He was at the end of the line.
Iggy made his bet. He unplugged, reaching for the clog.
Waking up was a pleasant surprise. He saw Jia, and that was nice too. “Hey,” he said.
She smiled. “Hey.”
He was lying down in a bed. The sky outside the window was yellowish and bright.
Jia stood, walked over. “Your umbilical went slack, so I hit the autoretract, which splattered unrecoverable liquid waste all over me and the room.”
“Gross.” Iggy was groggy, but he got it. “The biohazard alarms triggered.”
“Flashing lights, everything. Did you know that was going to happen?”
“I saw the biohazard sign and guessed the room was instrumented.”
“Well, by the time the response crew found a room they didn’t know existed, the ULW was drained and you were gone.”
“I knew it! Kind of.”
She blinked that away. “Your bag of crap was still there. Cellulose interwoven with some kind of structural biocide.”
He yelped out a laugh. “Wipes,” Iggy said. “Antiseptic wipes. People flush them. The nanotech sort of melts the cellulose.”
Jia shuddered. “While you were knocked out, three more people reported the same symptoms as AJ. I told the medtechs to check their HEPA-9s, and they found some kind of prion eating the seals. Easy enough to treat. They’re OK.”
“Wait, so, I was outside, right?”
“Iggy, yes! What the hell, man?”
Iggy put his head back against the clean, nice-smelling pillow. “The outflow pipes are so old, no one knows how big they are,” he said. “AJ was right.”
“So when you unplugged … ?”
“I got flushed,” Iggy said. Iggy knew the guts better than anyone.
Adam Rogers (@jetjocko) is a deputy editor at WIRED and the author of Proof: The Science of Booze.
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