A rush of hot desert air cycled through the airlock. Whipping dust atmosphere around Clayton, bits of sand stinging and watering his eyes. Clayton cursed himself for not wearing protective goggles, shielding them uselessly with a palm. It was easy to forget protocol when he used the airlock so rarely.
The stranger was silhouetted by sunlight past the exterior door - a shorter man than Clayton, dressed in lightweight UV-protective hat and trenchcoat. Goggles included. The inspector entered, trailed by flapping coat and two unknown service robots.
The airlock sealed shut with cool air rushing back in. The sensation lending calm to Clayton’s nerves.
The inspector removed goggles and coat, handing them to his accompanying bots. The units were man-sized, driving on treads with multi-tool kits appendages. Far more sophisticated than the units in Clayton’s dome.
The inspector smiled, outstretching a handshake “So glad to be out of that desert heat. I’m Henry Zhao. Are you Clayton?”
“Yes, I’m so glad you could make it, Mr. Zhao.” Clayton tried his best to smile.
Clayton liked to think of the airlock as his moat and drawbridge, the only time he opened the passage was when he had no other choice.
“Welcome to my farm.”
Clayton opened the inner airlock, waving Zhao and his robots through.
The farm held multiple floors of corn growing inside a 70,000 square foot biodome. The point of the structure was to provide crops the perfect environment for growth. Thirty years ago these crops could have been grown outside - and in some places in the world where the weather wasn’t so chaotic - they still could. But here in the desert of Nevada land was affordable, the controlled atmosphere of a biodome was the only place crops might sustainably thrive.
“Nice, very nice.” Zhao said looking across the vast fields.
The man was certainly polite. The dome might be breathtaking to the uninitiated but the inspector must have seen hundreds.
This dome was one of many ‘show domes’ used early in Zenith’s show brochures. Aqua blue glass paneling against the green and sunlight. It was picturesque dream for anyone wishing to sign up with Zenith Solutions. The reality was most Zenith crops were grown underground in cramped quarters where cost to power artificial sunlight and recycle water were cheaper and more efficient.
Clayton’s job was to maintain the dome’s machinery and harvest the corn. But it was the bots that did most the work. Simple bots, each designed for a specific task. Clayton was not only an agricultural specialist, but a robotics engineer too. These days it seemed like a person needed a technical background to have any kind of job at all.
On the other side of the dome was Clayton’s perfect farm house, a two story living structure for his wife and three home schooled children. It was more of Zenith’s showboating. Somewhere in the brochure it said “Self sustaining crops tended to by farmer’s and their families.” With a picture of Clayton and his family pictured beside the farm house. It seemed a dream he was thankful to call his reality.
Clayton’s days were filled with bot repair and scheduling work routes, sometimes helping his wife educate the children in maths.
He was fine with the solitude - the only people he would see on the average work day was his family and the night shift technician, Carlos Alvarez. Visitors were a very rare thing indeed. The cargo trucks, packagers, and loaders were completely self automated without human workers. The bots were serfs who toiled unconditionally under his own commands.
Once it might have taken dozens of human workers to work the fields. But automated robots had changed all that with time.
Within these walls Clayton was master and his family was royalty. They would remain so as long as he kept Zenith Solutions happy, the company which owned the farm and paid his wages.
“And you live here with your family, correct?” Zhao asked.
“Yes, my wife and two daughters. They’re having dinner right now.” He’d rather be at home with his family. Instead Clayton had to be here, obligated to meet with Zhao, the strange inspector from the United States Government.
The inspector took a breathing mask from his satchel and secured it in place around his own head.
And then motioned for Clayton to lead the way.
“I’ll try to make this fast so we can get you home for dinner.”
“Too late.” Clayton shook his head. “They would have started already.”
“Oh. Sorry about that.” Zhao seemed earnest. “Do you know why I’m here, Mr. Clayton?”
Clayton shook his head. Then thinking about the mask - Clayton suddenly had an inkling. “You’re looking for contamination?”
“Yes. Your company has briefed you on CAG76, correct?” Zhao asked.
“I uh… Yes, they have.” Clayton swallowed. “Protocol didn’t change for us. This facility was designed with all precautions already in mind.”
“Still, the federal government has issued bi-weekly inspection of all crops across the United States. So this will be routine now.”
“Oh.” Clayton swallowed. “Do they really have enough inspectors for that?”
It wasn’t the question to ask. But Clayton was afraid to ask the harder question.
Zhao laughed. “To be honest the government is understaffed. I was only recently hired. Don’t worry - that’s what the bots are for.” Zhao pointed to the robots following behind them. “They do all the work for me. I’m just the babysitter.”
The candidness made Clayton uneasy.
Zhao brought up his holo-watch. Part of the projection was set on “public”, so Clayton could see some of the display data hovering in the air, visual data rendered by the contact lenses he was wearing. It was always a good show of trust when someone had their holos set to public.
“Do you mind?” Zhao asked - ready to automate the robot.
“Be my guest,” Not like he had a choice.
Zhao tapped a finger against the hologram projection above by his wristwatch.
One of the robots stepped into the cornfield, waves of blue light rippled across the plants as it scanned.
“CAG76. How bad is it?” Clayton asked.
“I’m just here to run the the inspection. But… They talk like its spreading pretty quickly.”
“But inside a biodome...?” Clayton found it hard to believe any kind of contagion could make it’s way inside his kingdom. That was the entire point of the dome in the first place - next to escaping the heat death of the planet earth.
“That’s the thing sir, it’s airborne. It’s not just here in the States - it’s going global. A single carrier can spread through a whole crop. Honestly I’m still learning about this myself, this is only on my third week on the job. But supposedly even the biodomes aren’t safe.”
The inspector stopped and squinted at the display. “Uh oh.”
Zhao had switched his holo projection back to ‘private’. Whatever Zhao was seeing, he wasn’t sharing it with Clayton.
The inspection robot was coming right at them - treads wheeling through the field. Zhao’s eyes were wide.
The robot exited the field - and walked right past them - into the field across the path - continuing to scan the field with a light emitter.
“Here, you might want to put this on.” Zhao took another breathing mask from his satchel and handed it to him.
“Don’t tell me-”
“It’s everywhere. I’m sorry.” Zhao flipped his holo back to public. It showed the robot’s scan of both cornfields it was scanning. It was filled with red.
“That’s impossible…” Clayton said. “I’ve done everything right! It can’t- “
Zhao unclasped a light emitter from his belt. “It’s been growing for weeks.”
Zhao stepped up to the corn and projected the light from the emitter - red splotches - some kind of bacterial or fungal growth revealed by the special light.
“See?” Zhao said.
But this infection? This creature that breached into his castle - his perfectly defended fortress - and grew on the crops that were supposed to be safe in his stewardship?
“Can it be removed?” Clayton asked. His mouth dry.
“No.” Zhao said. “Everything will have to be destroyed. The crops, machinery, everything. Um… You should really put the mask on, sir.”
“No…” Clayton said absently. The dome was his stronghold. A place where he could raise his family in safety. Always with the knowledge he could pay for his children’s education and see they could eat in a time where life had become difficult for so many others.
Would Zenith find another biodome for him to become caretaker?
“It might take a week or a few days, but CAG76 can be fatal if ingested. There’s also possibility of infection by repeated contact. I’ll uh, e-mail you the info packet.”
“Oh no. No no!” Clayton fumbled at his holo-watch. Setting to dial his wife.
“Sir?” Zhao asked.
The holo dialed and rang. Then answered “Maggie!?” Clayton exclaimed.
“Maggie don’t eat the corn! Don’t let the kids eat the corn! Don’t eat anything! Just get out of the dome RIGHT NOW!”
“Maggie -! Please, tell me the kids didn’t eat the corn-”
“We always eat corn. You said not to wait for you-. The kids are cleaning the dishes right now.”
She was right. They always ate corn. Freshly grown from Clayton’s fields.