CitySys Health Irreg 23/613c: Wild Yeast
by Jens Durke
"I didn't say people want to smell corpses all the time, but every once in a while it's healthy, and there are folks out there paying good credits for experiences like that. It's really off the charts with augmentation apps and, believe me, there's shit to smell in virtual realities no real nose could comprehend. Bestselling shit, no less. It's called ‘benign masochism.' Look it up, Karyn."
Jeremy doing his thing again, spamming me with semi-useful knowledge to kill some time on our way to a job. It would get dark when he was in a bad mood, like today.
We'd already parked our hovercar and headed toward the west entrance of Watsiku Park in South East Sterlwynn Meadows, one of the public parks here. The dome covering this part of the district displayed a blue sky with some stray clouds heading north.
Some children were playing with kites in the artificial breeze. The kites looked like fighting dragons. Trees swayed gently and all one could hear was distant children's laughter with the murmuring of rustling leaves. Maybe a bird or a car alarm, once in a while. The air was fresh, too: best artificial microclimate money could buy. And not even tax money, The Meadows was all corporate. Their EnviroDesign really did the job. So relaxing. I made a mental note to come back here some time.
Jeremy still looked tense, though. I couldn't tell why, and he wouldn't elaborate. Experience told me to just sit it out. Instead I concentrated more on the scenery and ignored the grim looking co-worker while looking around for the park personnel. There was nothing humans could do in a park like this that machines didn't do better, so having some gardeners hired here was merely cosmetic.
However, CitySys had advised to make contact with those guys first, as they'd spend most of their time in the park and might have an idea what was going on.
Didn't take long to spot one of their orange park sprinters between some trees and a bald guy in his forties, wearing the green and orange outfit they sport here in the park, doing ... well, he did something that looked like dancing or Thai Chi.
I nodded Jeremy in that direction and we changed course toward the guy that just did some elegant skips and pirouettes while raking leaves, obviously deep in some sort of AR game. The Workplace Augmentation Act 143D had allowed workplace augmentation early in the rise of AR. It was only common sense: if you did your job, no one cared what you looked at when you did it. Some found it even enhancing their working performance. Still looked like a weirdo doing gymnastics, though.
I coughed audibly. No reaction. Or rather, the guy started to sing as if on stage for a Wagner opera. All deep and epic. I spontaneously developed a headache right above the eyes and started massaging the spot.
Didn't notice me, started dancing again.
Jeremy stepped forward and took possession of the rake in one swift swoop. That stopped the guy and we flashed him our badges as he went all fish-faced behind his HUD-glasses while his brain adjusted to reality.
"My name is Karyn Osheere and this is Jeremy Hawthorne," I said. "We're with the Health Services Department. We address you with the full authority of CivSec and expect full cooperation in this matter. Please be advised that the procedure is being streamed, evaluated and recorded."
"Get a grip, man. CitySys is looking." Jeremy had no patience for this. It sobered the guy quite a bit. He still seemed shook, though.
"It's just ... you know ... there is this Norwegian game designer ... Tore, uh, doesn't matter ... demanding stuff, you know ... very physical." He ended that with a weak smile.
"CitySys registered some alarming changes in the microfloral ecosystem here.", I said, being all business no fun, "The filter system in one of the farm-towers - Okanimo, I think – caught a whiff of something... weird, and it had already resulted in altered behavioral patterns in the population. Sys sends us to investigate. So, anything strange happening around here lately? What's new?"
"CitySys doesn't know?" He was barely catching up.
"It knows when something is up, when something affects the environment. Sometimes it can intervene all by itself, sometimes it needs the Health Department to step in and take a closer look." The truth of it was that CitySys and Big Corp don't work as well together as one would think, and we often don't get an idea that something is going on until it has already affected the population. "Anything of interest happening here lately?"
"What kind of behavioral changes?" He'd started eyeing the trees and the Okanimo farming-tower in the distance suspiciously.
"Doesn't say. Please, Sir, to your knowledge: what's going on here that could relate to this? Any ideas at all?" At this point I didn't expect more than a "no" and was ready to leave that VirtHead to his elfgames.
The guy slowly leaned back on his sprinter and put on his concerned thinking face as he processed the new information, his eyes lost in the distance. It looked as if it could take a while. We had no time for this.
"It's nothing serious, Sir. For all we know, just a rise in allergies and depression rates, with the expected negative impact on social media interaction. That and some energy fluctuation from the plants, resulting in flickering lights. Minor alterations, obviously, but things shouldn't be out of whack even that tiny bit, given how much money the district's corporate stakeholders have invested." I volunteered, hoping to get the guy a bit less concerned about his health and more focused on the question. "So here we're to take a closer look. No reason to be alarmed."
Jeremy let me do the talking, knowing full well that diplomacy wasn't his strong suit right now. Never was, actually. And it payed off, too.
"...Yeah, all right, I think I got something for you guys. Actually, it's about time someone took this seriously. You know, I keep telling management that something is off in the park lately. Strange weeds growing all over the place and we already got some sick SmartPlants, mostly trees."
He took out his mobile and shared some pictures of plants after skipping some VR-Stills of him as his in-game avatar, gleefully fighting some sort of fish monster. Probably while doing some forestry.
"Tech says it's a minor glitch and they are on top of it," he continued, gaining momentum,"but I think someone has introduced aggressive foreign flora here and it's only getting worse. Plants cross-pollinating in overtime and mutating to only God knows what. Allergies! Of course! The air is saturated with plants fucking this park right into a catastrophe as we stand here talking! Can't you smell it?"
"You mean, some sort of archeo-biohacking? Why?" In my periphery I saw Jeremy turning away, looking at the sky and comparing what he saw to the results in his HUD glasses, his hands discretely flickering over the digital keyboard around his fingertips as he dug into whatever had piqued his interest just now.
I kept busy interrogating the guy. The headache had actually gotten a bit worse. I felt light-headed and there was a scratching sensation in my throat. I had Sys monitoring my vitals, just in case my body reacted to whatever was in the air here. Sys wasn't alarmed, so I relaxed a bit.
"Maybe it's some of those Pure Nature fanatics," the guy ventured on."You'll have them here protesting every now and then when they actually manage to get a permit. Usually on days when it's scheduled to rain. Ha! They just don't get what we are doing here. "Free the plants" and "The plants didn't give their consent!" He waved his arms a little bit, as if carrying a protest sign, making a face with it. "Stupid shit like that. Maybe some of them thought sabotage would be a better way to get their points across. Just the other day I saw..."
A text message from Jeremy and some coordinates lid up in my AR display: Get rid of the putz and get moving, Karyn, I think I got something. Meanwhile, Mr Gardener was in full swing.
"...and I'm saying to Claudia–Claudia is my Boss–well, I'm saying to her, the Vaccinum Oxycoccos–that's the common cranberry–they look strange lately..."
I looked around and, sure enough, Jeremy was just a slim figure in the distance, making way toward the east gate.
"...so I chased that kid through the park. Right over there, actually. The little punk didn't think I was as fit as I am. Anyway, I catch the fucker and ask him, what he was thinking, abusing corporate property like that..."
I checked Sys for the gardener's name. "Well, Mr Novak, thank you for your time. We will follow up on your observations. The department appreciates your help. I have to catch up with my colleague now. Have a good day."
"...went to the authorities with this. Lots of paperwo... What? Yes, of course! Glad I could help. Any time. Any time. I could send you those reports, if you like to..."
"That'll be alright, Mr Novak. If the reports are already with CitySys, we have all we need." With that I made my exit, oriented myself toward the east gate and started jogging.
I was way more out of breath than I should have been when I reached Jeremy. "What did you see, Jeremy?"
"The clouds and the wind don't match," he said, smiling awkwardly and pointing toward the dome. "But they should. I checked with Sys and someone definitely tinkered with it. Minor changes no one would really care about, but it made me think." He took a closer look at me. "What's wrong, Karyn? Your eyes are all red."
"Never mind me." I waved his concerns away, sneezed and wondered if I had some handkerchiefs somewhere, "Could you just get to the point?"
"Sure, sure." We were approaching the east gate of the park. "Okay, so I saw that the wind doesn't match the sky and did some digging. You know, looking what else changed in the direction the wind was moving and all that. I mean, it was a leap and not necessarily correlated... Wait. Are you smelling that?"
He'd stopped and lifted his big nose into the air, even closing his eyes to get a better grip on whatever he smelled. My nose was closed up good, I couldn't smell anything. "I got nothing. What's it you're smelling?"
Jeremy turned to me, still smiling, and now with an evil glint in his eyes. "If I'm not mistaken, it's the smell of alcoholic fermentation. As I was saying, I looked at what had changed recently and it was around that time some archeo-craftbeer brewery opened its doors right here, on the east side of the park. They're brewing beer like they did in the olden days, all craftsmanship and almost no technology. Owned by some crazy European food designers. I looked into them. Their permits are okay. No obvious connection to the hack-job done in the park. But Karyn, I'm telling you, those brewers are up to something." His mood had improved. Good.
We were already crossing the street, heading toward the front of what looked like an Irish pub: a green facade of painted wood panels, with lots of tables out front. Name of the place was The Danish Lady, Pub and Brewery. As we got closer, the sweet and heavy smell of the brewery grew intense enough that it even conquered my snot-filled nostrils. People didn't seem to care; the place was packed.
We went inside. More wooden panels and furniture. Huge brass fermenters dominated the main guest room. The inside was as packed as the outside. There were no human waiters; people ordered via the interactive surfaces on their tables, and cute little drones looking like traditional Danish hats delivered their orders. It still had a human barkeeper, though. A young, red-haired woman buzzed around behind the counter, keeping conversations going with at least three customers, filling a bottle with beer as a take-away for a fourth while tapping four pints for a drone order.
We didn't want to spook the customers, so we kept it subtle. Took her a while till she got to us and we got a chance to ask who was in charge.
"Oh, today it's only Martin. The other bosses are at a fair in France. Martin's in the back doing... Hey!" Jeremy was already at the door the girl was pointing at, pushing through. I gave her an excusing shrug and followed him. If she alerted the authorities, CitySys would inform her about us.
Behind the door was a fully automated kitchen, busy cooking up all the meals people had ordered. I looked for Jeremy, didn't see him. Up the stairs appeared in my display. I found the stairs and followed them until I saw Jeremy standing in front of a closed door on the second floor. He eyed me and thumbed toward the door, indicating that he thought Martin was behind it. I nodded my okay. He mouthed This is going to be good! in my direction, and opened the door.
Inside we found a short and round Asian on a ladder, pouring some greens from a sack on his shoulder into a huge, steaming basin that was the centerpiece of the room. To our right, a huge closed window looked west over the park. The sweet and heavy smell was intense in here, as was the moist heat. Something smelly was cooking in that basin.
Jeremy stepped forward, closer to the window. "Are you Martin?"
The guy had just finished emptying the sack and was on his way down the ladder to get some more when Jeremy stopped him in his tracks. "Yeah, what about it? How did you get in here?"
We flashed our badges and did our thing. Jeremy took the lead.
"I'm Jeremy Hawthorne and this is my colleague, agent Karyn Osheere," he said. "We're with the Health Services Department and it's our duty to inform you that you are under public evaluation for violations of the Union City Health Code. Please be advised that this procedure is being streamed, evaluated and recorded."
"What the...? I have no time for this right now. I need to get the hops in there or the flavor will be all out of sync." With that he shouldered the next sack and headed back toward the ladder. "What's this about anyway? Our permits are all in order."
Jeremy chose the indirect approach, following his gut again. "What's the purpose of this huge window? Ventilation?"
"The window? Well, somewhat, but mainly we need it to get the air in to start the fermentation process as this hot wort here cools down." Done with the second sack, going for a third. "It's a Belgian specialty called lambic beer. We keep the window open overnight for cooling, and the wild yeast from the park activates the wort. Beautiful, really. It catches the terroir of Watsiku Park, the taste."
"So what does the park taste like?" Jeremy, zeroing in on it.
"Not of much at first, to be honest. However, we managed to find some specimen of the plants that grew naturally where the park now is. Damn, those seeds didn't come cheap. Totally worth it for the result, though... What? Why are you looking that way at me?"
"Man, talk about renaturation gone wrong." Jeremy playfully kicked a nearby stone away, avoiding looking at my monstrously swollen face. "Imagine what could have gone wrong with this! Fascinating how fragile those artificial environments are. It was some great beer, though. How will you frame it in your final report?" Weird side effects of geo-engineering always cheered Jeremy up.
"Not sure. I mean, those brewers definitely did some harm when they introduced flora to the park's artificial environment that couldn't be handled by the system. On the other hand it's really hard to predict those things to begin with, so how could they even have known what they where doing? Lesson, learned, I guess. CitySys has already adjusted the filter variables, and with the seeds on hand, the park techs will be able to engineer the SmartPlants back to their normal functioning instead of producing allergens like crazy," I said and sneezed. "It should be fine now." All the same, I was happy to get out of here.
On our way to the car we saw that bald gardener dancing again in the distance, doing his job.