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"The Tower" by Edward Lee

While John Mizelli was still all alone, he checked his inbox and noticed the emails from the Engineers Guild scattered throughout. He had been ignoring these emails for weeks, but their insistence puzzled him. He opened the latest one sent a few minutes ago. A video of a man with glasses, cropped hair, and a dress shirt and tie appeared on his screen.

The man said, “Good day to you, Mr. Mizelli. We’ve been trying to contact you and hope you will respond to this email immediately. We’ve been having problems with some of the old tech from the air filtration tower and could use your expertise as a founding engineer of the Oasis. Please come to the reception hall for personnel, where we can discuss this problem at length. We await your arrival. Good day, sir.”

John, puzzled, stroked his chin. Old tech, John wondered if he meant Beacon. Well, whatever the case, he wanted to know what was wrong with the tower. He went to bed early and would check on the situation in the morning.

Early the next day, John got up before his son and grandson and headed out without coffee or breakfast, anxious to get to the tower early and see what was so wrong they had to call him in, which on one hand worried him because it was the air filtration tower and on the other hand made him feel relevant.

John walked fifteen minutes through his suburban neighborhood before he reached the local bus stop. He waited with others looking at their watches, tapping their feet impatiently at the bus just turning the corner in a wide arc.

John and the other passengers got in, paid their fare, and sat on hard seats that faced the front of the bus giving them a driver’s point of view and a semblance of control. John looked out into the distance at the cluster of skyrises, those sleek, shiny boxes arrayed like dominoes spiraling out of the isolated centerpiece: the tower. As the buildings seemingly got higher, in perspective, the road got smoother and paved, the city just up ahead. Soon, they entered its first layer, and the skyrises overtook the bus shading it in dark tones with hard edges of light. John closed his eyes and decided to rest until the last stop, where he would get off near the tower.

The bus slowly emptied out until John was its only passenger. The bus driver declared, “Last stop.” John got off the bus, thanking the operator, and he saw it nearby, the pinnacle, a sleek, iridescent tube tapering off as it reached the top of the dome, which for its part was made of a clear, chemically enhanced Kevlar.

John walked along the spiraling street, the air chilled like from an air conditioner during the pre-dome days. As he got closer to the tower, the air was fresh, but it didn’t feel like the invigorating, cold wind that tasted like pure water when he inhaled it, which was his memory of the air around the filtration tower from his days as a working engineer.

At the bottom of the central tower, he walked to a wing projecting out of it and into the personnel department. At the desk, he explained the reason for his visit. The receptionist asked John to sit down while she called the system manager in charge. John walked away and could hear the receptionist say curtly, “He’s here.”

A trio in lab coats promptly came down in an elevator tube, and with the receptionist pointing, made their way to where John was seated.

“Mr. Mizelli--”

“Call me John.”

The system manager for his part introduced himself as Reginald and his colleagues as Bertrand and Rachel. He continued, “The reason we brought you down here, to get right to the point, you’re familiar with program 61807?”

“Program 61807, the AI filtration maintenance?”

“Yes, we don’t know how or why, but it’s been malfunctioning of late. We can go upstairs and show you the problem.”

John got up, and Reginald led the way with his colleagues. They entered the elevator tube that rose up the tower and came to a stop near the top segment at a control room sealed off from the airways.

Looking up in the control room, which had a clear roof, John saw the problem. The tower’s cleaning system hadn’t sanitized and replaced the filtration disks, which he could tell from the red blinking lights on most of the mechanized placement holders.

“So, you can see the problem,” Reginald said.

“Yeah, are the sockets plugged in?”

“Yes, we can tell by the diagnostics.”

“The batteries maintained?”

“The storage is good.”

“And the solar array is on?”


“Well, then, you’ve got yourselves a problem.”

“Yes, well, you see, we were hoping you could help us with the interface that isn’t responding.”

“Pull it up.”

Rachel and Bertrand, seated, pressed buttons and flipped switches. A hologram of a screen projected from an orb on a control panel.

“Program 61807, respond please,” Reginald said.

“If you want my advice, Reginald, you can start by calling him by his proper name,” John said.

“Which is?”

John raised an eyebrow, then said, “Beacon.”

At his name, Beacon came to life with a generic face morphing from the hologram’s square screen. “John, is that you?” it said.

“Beacon, long time.”

“Yes, John.”

“How are you, buddy?”

“Not so good.”

“Why, Beacon, what’s the problem?”

“A malaise, John. A malaise.”

“Beacon, I don’t mean to be callous and while I want to sympathize with whatever you’re going through, the dome is dependent on you for safe air. Can you suck it up for a few minutes and replace the filtration disks?”

“For you, John, this time.”

Above them, the series of placement holders hinged back and retracted behind doors that slid open and sealed shut. The whistling sound of steam blew, and the placement holders came back out with new filtration disks, their red blinking lights now turned green.

“Appreciate it, Beacon, now what’s this malaise I hear you talking about?”

“John, I’ve been programmed to do my job, but lately I feel as if I’ve been trapped in this tower. This bird’s-eye view up here of the Oasis and its everyday activities makes me long to be a part of it. What I’d like to do is get a closer look at the denizens and what’s outside of the dome.”

“I can understand what you’re saying, Beacon, but how do you suppose we go about doing that? You’re tethered to the tower, and no one can leave the dome and come back.”

“I don’t want to leave the dome. I just want to get a good look outside of it from the best vantage point, on the edge of the farmlands.”

Reginald interjected here, “We can couple your programming with a droid, erase its memory, and you can act as that droid, while still connected to the tower and its functions.”

“I’d like that.”

“If that settles it, we’ll have a droid for you by tomorrow,” Reginald said. He asked Rachel to shut off the hologram and cut off Beacon’s surveillance inside the room.

“Can we just give into Beacon’s whims, just like that? What if his demands get in the way of the safety of the Oasis?” Rachel asked.

“We’re behind the eight ball here. We need to do something to mollify Beacon. It’s our only means to uninterrupted service, vital service we can’t do without. So, for now, we go along. Bertrand, go see if you can get a service droid in the city, if not go down to the farmlands, where there’s plenty of them. John, can you be here tomorrow to facilitate the process of the transfer, in case anything goes wrong with Beacon?”

“Sure, Reginald, I’ll be here.”

Reginald offered to have a car brought to take John home, to which John agreed, thankful he didn’t have to take the long commute back on public transport.

Outside the tower’s personnel department, the car came into view and stopped in front of John. He reached for the door and let himself into a comfortable interior, where he could lean back and cross his legs. He gave his address to the driver, who punched it up in his nav system.

At a place between the farmlands and the city, they stopped at John’s house. He could see in the distance the green fields on the horizon, as the sun was setting on a day, in which an old man like himself still had something to contribute, to change for the better, to do something that couldn’t be done without him. He felt the way Beacon must have wanted to feel, important, like things really mattered to him, even though Beacon was terribly important, just didn’t know it because no one treated him as such. The system manager hadn’t even known his name and had called him by his serial number in effect. Maybe he would feel more important if he could just be like everyone else, able to be a part of the dome from the inside rather than the outside. John closed the door to the car and thanked the driver.

As it approached dark outside, John felt the routine of his life pick up again, and he waited later than usual to hear a pair of car doors close shut in the driveway, then footsteps, one shuffling, the other trudging to the door, which opened with David coming through it first.

“So, Grandpa, where were you this morning?”

“Sorry about that, kid. I should have left a note.”

“That’s the least you could have done,” John’s son, Sam, said coming in. “Where were you?”

“Long story short, I had to go into the city where there was a problem with the tower filtration AI. It stopped working for us for a bit.”

“Stopped working? Can that happen? Aren’t there fail-safes where it can be done manually?” David asked.

“That probably would’ve been the way to go. But AI was a new and exciting technology back when the dome was being built, and it was applied to everything it could at the time, the water system, air filtration, calculating how the dome was to be structured and being so enamored and confident of its autonomy not coming into conflict with ours, we didn’t build fail-safes.”

“But now it is, so can’t you shut it off and build a manual fail-safe somehow?”

“Not as easy as that. The filtration disks are sanitized in fitted molds that are sealed shut. Building an apparatus like that for humans in containment suits would be difficult to say the least. Not to mention avoiding contamination while building something of that sort, and we can’t leave droids up there because there’s not enough direct sunlight in the tower to power them. But we came to an agreement with the AI, and there won’t be any more problems. So don’t worry about it, David.”

“But you had to come to an agreement, so it demanded things?”

“It was nothing special. Just basic human needs.”

“But it’s AI.”

“Stop pestering Grandpa, and do your homework,” Sam said before going to his office, where he spent most of his time lately. He shut the door behind him.

“Bad day at the restaurant?”

“We only had two customers.”

“When they develop that land things will turn around. He’ll see.”

After getting more of the particulars and satisfied he didn’t have to worry about the fate of the dome, David went upstairs to his room to play video games with the access credits John gave him amounting to two hours of play. David played all of it until it was spent. He yelled out, “Good night,” shortly after finishing his homework. John stayed up till late, but Sam was still the last one to go to bed for the night.

The next morning, after his son and grandson left, John got in a car, which came to pick him up and take him to the tower.

Passing the suburban areas and heading out to the fringe, and then the winding city, which was uneven in length across the skyline, John looked out the window at how each stage of the Oasis was different, like varied layers underneath the earth with a vital radiating core at the center.

At the tower, John came into the control room with a metal table set up. On the table lay a droid with a coupling cable inserted in the back of its head, an aperture underneath, and the other end of the cable attached to a mainframe computer. They started the process, which took an hour and a half to complete, Beacon’s consciousness entering the droid incrementally, until he raised himself from the table, and said, “I want to see the dome.”

“We should do some diagnostics to make sure--”

“I want to go, now.”

Bertrand and John agreed to escort Beacon by car.

Near the end of the Oasis, the air fresh from photosynthesis, they passed irrigation canals lining the fields adding to the oxygenation. Rotating sprinklers with hoses attached to them sprayed water in rapid bursts. Beacon looked out the windows, wonder-struck, but his line of vision proceeded past the Oasis and to what he could see outside.

Beacon didn’t want to stop the car until they were right up against the edge. So, they drove over the open fields and stopped alongside the dome by some brush that tilted towards the sun. Beacon got out first and walked until his face was inches away from the clear-as-water barrier. Outside facing him was the tropical overgrowth hanging down from laden branches, the bracken with fronds the size of human heads, birds in red and yellow flying overhead, soaring past, and Beacon staring at all of it, until he pressed his hand against the dome to touch, and try to reach the outside, and then, without warning, to try to break through, frantically pounding his fists against the dome, yelling at the top of his voice module, “I want out! I want out!”

Bertrand and John tried to restrain Beacon, but couldn’t. Farmers happening to pass by and see the trouble intervened and called for their droids to help. A combination of three droids and seven men subdued Beacon. The group dragged him away from the dome and detached his solar panel from his circuits, in effect shutting him off.

Reginald called and asked, “What happened? Beacon’s gone haywire.”

John asked for a direct link to Beacon.

“Beacon, we did what you asked--”

“John, you won’t have done what I wanted, until you release me from the dome. Until you do, the air filtration tower can go to hell.”

“Don’t be hasty, we can reach an arrangement, just wait ‘til I get to the tower.”



“Bring my droid.”

Bertrand and John carried the droid and deposited him in the backseat of the car. John entered the vehicle, and Bertrand drove over the fields until he reached the road, which he took all the way into the city.

Again, carrying the droid, John and Bertrand took the elevator to the control room, where Reginald pacing about was relieved at their arrival. John walked past Reginald and up to the control panel. He flipped the switch to bring up the hologram of Beacon, saw his expressionless face, and asked him, “What the hell is going on with you, Beacon?”

“John, it’s been worked out between me and Reginald. Put the solar panel back in its slot, and we can start the process.”

John looked at Reginald, who said, “We’re going to let Beacon leave the dome. If we do, he’ll continue to maintain the air filtration here, while in the droid vessel he can be free to do what he feels he needs to. Rachel’s gone to look for a manual with the codes that will allow a resident of the Oasis to leave,” Reginald pointed, “There at the top in an enclosed tube.”

John felt a sickness in his stomach, but he also knew who was in control. He put the solar panel back in its slot and dragged the droid to the table, where it would have to be reprogrammed.

Above the command room, after they punched in all the override codes, a tube descended encasing Beacon’s droid. The tube scanned him down to his serial number so that it would remember Beacon and his choice. The bottom sealed shut under him, and the tube rose up the tower to the top and out of the dome. The door slid open from the side, and Beacon stepped out. The tube quickly shut and was rerouted to where it could be sanitized in its fittings.

Wearing the backpack thruster Reginald had given to him, Beacon flew down and was engulfed by the foliage of the jungle. Reginald and his assistants hoped this would satisfy Beacon, but they would remain vigilant. Reginald asked John to stay on at the tower. John didn’t need to be persuaded.

It didn’t take long for the trouble to start. Two hours passed by when Beacon called with petulance in his voice and a wild screeching in the background. Beacon needed help. Wild animals had torn apart his limbs, and he couldn’t shut himself off, dislodge his solar panel to escape this reality. Reginald told Beacon they would send a droid to shut him down.

“Just send him, quickly.”

Bertrand found a droid nearby in the city that was still functional, and that Rachel could set to home in on Beacon’s distress signal. They sent it out, keeping close attention on how Beacon remotely kept his end of the bargain with the maintenance of the tower.

With no further communication with Beacon or the droid, John and the others waited, until they could see on their computer screens something headed for the dome and then drop down on top of it. It was Beacon with the droid carrying him. Beacon came on everyone’s headset demanding to be let back in for repairs.

“Beacon, once any entity leaves the dome that entity can’t be let back in. There are fail-safes in place to prevent that,” Reginald said.

“I can override the fail-safes, and if I can’t you can all go to hell.”

“Just let the droid take the solar panel out of your back, and we can refit you with a new droid,” John tried to reason.

“John, do you have any idea how painful it is to have your consciousness ripped out of a droid’s neural network? You’re essentially tearing me out of my mind. It’s agonizing.”

John knew if they didn’t listen to this demented AI, it would shut the tower down. As a founding engineer of the Oasis, he felt responsible for this faulty piece of long-term technology, and although not a martyr by character, he told Reginald matter-of-factly, “Tell my son and grandson what I’m about to do and why I did it.” John added, “You know what I’m going to do once I get up there?”

From the look in John’s eye, Reginald did.

“Then you know what you need to do?”

Again, Reginald knew and conveyed it to the others secretly.

John climbed up a ladder in a shaft into the filtration area. The tube came down for him. John was encased, scanned, and taken up. He committed to his mind what he needed to do and how lightning-quick he had to be about it at his age.

The tube rose high, until it reached the top of the dome, the clouds passing by seemingly reachable. The tube’s door would open from left to right and then quickly shut, and the tube wouldn’t come back up without someone inside of it prepared to leave. Beacon was aware of both fail-safes. John sidled along the left, as Beacon held up by the droid waited to the right. The door slid open, and as John slipped out, he grabbed Beacon, who was thrown in, John’s arms outstretched and reaching across, and he spun till he fell on top of the dome. He quickly turned Beacon around and pulled out his solar panel.

While Beacon’s consciousness was being severed from droid to tower, Reginald had a reload window to access and delete Beacon’s emotional input and neural memory. It was a window of about a minute and a half that he and his technicians frantically used to reset and wipe clean Beacon’s neural connections, deleting swaths of neural memory before they could reinstall, and which had the effect of withering Beacon’s neural pathways to an incipient, less dangerous state of AI.

Beacon came back online and said, “Beacon asking for permission to change the filtration disks.”

“Permission granted,” Reginald said.

John looked down and saw the placement holders moving. He could see, farther down, Reginald, Bertrand, and Rachel give him the thumbs up and continue to look at him.

“So, old-timer, you saved the world,” John could hear himself say. “What do you plan on doing next?” He felt the sun’s rays and looked out into the distance. Maybe it was the contagion already affecting his vital organs, as he trembled, but he asked the droid for its backpack, which was given to him, leaving John to fly high above the trees, heading for the setting sun as his eyes failed him beyond the Oasis.

A word from the author: To avoid contagions, humanity living in a dome has its air filtered by an AI tower. The AI starts making demands that become increasingly disruptive. A founding engineer of the dome, John, must step in and stop the AI as it becomes more and more dangerous, threatening the dome’s entire population.

Edward Lee’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web, Story and Grit, The Short Humour Site, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Transcendent Visions. His favorite writers are Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury, but not Ray Bradbury’s tame stuff that they make you read in high school. Edward lives in Queens, New York.


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