Thursday, August 7, 2014

One City

The world is a wheel, a giant turning wheel woven from diamond, and inside that perfection are people who cherish everything that is theirs.  Every family has an ancient home.  Every home is spacious and clean and surrounded by gardens.  Families are free to design their gardens however they wish, and everybody wants to be original. But there are standards, long traditions. No good person wants to appear out of step or crass either, and while every garden has its own mixture of plants and bird, fountains and fish, these are merely cosmetic variations, beauties merging into the enduring sameness.

The world’s people are very much like their gardens.

Youth.  Health.  Bright smiles and song.  These qualities can be assured.  All that is required is the best science applied to flesh and blood.  Sunlight is gathered in mirrors and a tiny portion of that energy is cast into chambers where people sleep.  Every flaw is removed, every disease killed.  One of those chambers is working hard now, and then the humming stops and the machine opens like a flower blossom.  With a rush of gas and laughter, a woman who could be twenty or twenty-five climbs into the bright pure air.  She is naked and gorgeous.  Her clothes rush to cover her, and she becomes even more gorgeous.

Watching her and not watching, another woman sits nearby.  She seems older.  Attractive and apparently healthy, yet that face is perhaps twice the age of the first woman.  They could be mother and daughter.

The girlish face smiles at her older companion.  “Jody,” she says.

A tablet of diamond and light rests in Jody’s hand.  She looks at the tablet, pretending to study a snippet of video.

The young face and fine strong body move closer.

“What are you watching, darling?”

Jody looks up.  Looks past her companion.  “Last minute research,” she says.

The young-looking woman stops short.  With a firm tone, she says, “I could forbid you from going.”

“You won’t,” Jody says.

“I won’t,” the woman agrees.

Jody stares at the young face.

“Mother,” Jody says.

Their relationship is the opposite of what it appeared to be.

“But you need to go below,” the young-faced parent adds.  “You need to serve.  If not you…”

“It might be you.”

“It has been me,” she says.

“I know, Mother.  You did your tours, did what matters.”

“But please, consider using the chamber,” the immortal face says.  “A half-renewal.  Just to bolster your immune system, your mind.  There's so much disease down there.”

“My mind is fine,” Jody interrupts.

“Freshen your blood,” her mother insists.  “You don’t have to renovate your face, and you can still make your point.  Show me and everyone else just how noble and good you are, compared to silly shallow us.”

Jody stares at her silly, shallow mother.

“I do love you,” the immortal tells her only child.

“But you don’t listen to me,” says her fifty year-old child.

“Because love is born,” her mother warns.  “But respect.  Respect is earned, and you gave up trying to earn mine long ago.”


Matt has what looks like an honest face.  Honest in the sense that the years matter, the heat and dirt around him matter.  Poverty and occasional acts of great violence have sculpted a pretty face into something hard and stern.  In this sprawling ugly world, Matt appears insignificant.  Yet in this one corner of the universal city, he is a man of some consequence.  That much is obvious from the first moments.  Strangers know his name.  Friends show him deferential smiles.  Many languages coexist in this slum, written on walls and spoken from the endless parade of bodies.  Two armed men--thugs, really--approach Matt.  With some version of Mandarin, they question him about what to do about an old trouble.  Their faction is owed a favor by some other faction, and how do they extract that favor without generating another war like three years ago?

Matt lives outside the factions.

He is the official collaborator, their local quisling.  Which is not a horrible or dishonorable state of affairs in a world ruled for centuries by distant powers riding inside the diamond wheel.

The collaborator promises to make arrangements, to make everyone happy.

Accepting his word, the thugs graciously retreat.

The location is never named.  Which of the seven continents this is barely matters.  Earth is a hive filled with a single species of worker ant.

Matt has a small, clean house on a hilltop.

He returns home at dusk.  A pretty thirty year-old woman greets him by name.  Her daughter calls him, “Papa.”  There is no familial resemblance, yet the warmth from all three seems as genuine as the grit and poverty outside their walls.

One government robot stands guard at the doorway.

An absolute minimum number of robots are able to maintain order in this confusing, but fundamentally simple world.

The family enjoys dinner.  Yet despite affections, there are tensions between the smiles. Careful expressions.  Forced politeness.  Matt tends to drink too much while ignoring what is being said to him.  And he’s often pulled away for mysterious conversations.

His common law wife worries about other women in his life, and the dangers that every collaborator faces, and of course her own precarious place in the world, should any disaster come for him.  She reminds her daughter of all that.  Matt has left the room, and the girl listens to her mother’s blunt honesty.  But the youngster doesn’t sees no reason to worry.  Her adopted father loves her and her mother.  He drinks because this life is demanding and dangerous.  A lot of responsibility sits on him, yet hasn’t he always survived?  That’s what she reminds her silly, doubting mother.

In the next room, Matt finishes one drink and refills his glass.

Talking to a diamond tablet, he asks, “What do we know about the new doctor?”

“Name’s Jody,” says the unseen speaker.

“Man or woman?”

“Does it matter?”

Matt laughs grimly.

“Yeah, it’s a woman,” says the voice.  “And there’s reasons to think we can work with her.”

“We always work with them,” Matt says.

“Yeah, but this one’s different.”

“Different how?”

“I won’t tell you.  You make friends, see what you think.”


“Service before breath, duty before all.”

The motto decorates the doctor’s office, and she seems to earnestly believe in her mission. 

Jody’s work is to dispense care to the luckiest few--those rewarded for good work, and the winners of a lottery system subverted at every turn.  But she does her job with skill and considerable energy.  Among her hospital’s assets are several rejuvenation chambers that work constantly, night and day.  And one of her other duties is to meet the local collaborator.
Matt proves pleasant enough.  Even charming.  She doesn’t flirt, but the possibility is there.  He asks for small favors--medicines for allies, rare liquors for different allies, and maybe a little software to make the robots more flexible--and they come to an equitable agreement.

Some collaborators are nightmares, Jody has been warned.  By her mother, and others.  And maybe this man will prove the same.  But at least for the moment, Matt is playing nice.

Weeks pass.

One lucky boy visits the clinic several times.  In crisp slices, Jody tailors her patient’s treatment.  But the rejuvenations are battling against pernicious diseases. The youngster’s health declines all the same, and his corpse is burned in the daily cremation.  The initial idealism fades, replaced by her dissatisfaction for the impossible work.  The old Earth is a miserable place, overcrowded and tired, and what good can any one person do?

Matt visits during an especially difficult day.

The two share drinks, talking about their lives.  He is the happy one, by comparison.  She flirts, but then he brushes her aside, leaves.

Later that evening, armed men grab the doctor, taking her hostage.


Jody is a prisoner to desperate people. Important people come from the Wheel to hunt for her, but she can't be found. There's talk of ransom, and Matt is investigated. But he seems to work as hard as anyone to find her and free her.

His common-law wife accuses him of having an affair with the woman.  “Why else are you so interested?”

The man offers nothing, but he obviously keeps secrets.

Meanwhile, Jody adapts to captivity.  She sees suffering and a social order on the brink of collapse.  The Wheel people come to rescue, killing the innocent. Then Matt manages to pluck her out of her prison, and she makes a pass at him.

He rebuffs her again.

But he refuses to leave her, and in his care, the doctor comes to one inescapable decision:

This social order has to be torn down.

But how?

Jody asks Matt for help.

He feigns skepticism.  But the dissident persists until a partnership is found.  It takes Matt a brief while to assemble a picked team of armed men, and with Jody’s help, they fly to the Wheel, and after a hard-fought battle, a thousand year reign comes to an end.

Looking across a long stretch of parkland, gazing at thousands of beautiful immortals, Matt says, “And now all of you are going to move. You're going to move to the Earth.  Permanently.  You’re going to live there and work there and probably die there.  Unless you can finally fix the mess.”

“What about our homes here?” someone calls out.

“They aren’t yours anymore.  The Wheel, the mirrors, all of it.  They’re ours, and you won’t be seeing them much more.”

Only one immortal isn't present.

Jody’s mother is tending her garden when her daughter arrives.

The old and ageless woman acts calm, and with a loving voice, she tells her daughter to come inside.  “I have something to confess, darling.”


Twelve billion people live on a scarred, filthy world. Hanging in the sky, inside that diamond wheel, are twelve thousand immortal souls.

Think of the absurdity.  One immortal for every million who aren’t.  Now try to cobble together any set of institutions that would make this system stable for more than an afternoon.  It can’t be done. 

The economics are senseless.  The politics are more than fragile.  Even poor as they are, the earthbound ants could surely launch an assault on their overlords.  And for that matter, a city-state in space could go anywhere else, carrying the gardens and pretty houses to realms with vast, wondrous views.

Lovers talk in bed.

A woman’s voice describes this crazy ass picture.

A man’s voice agrees with her, laughing.

She laughs too.

Faces appear.  Matt is younger, and it’s hard to decipher how much younger.  And the woman beside him is Jody’s mother, as fresh and changeless as ever.

She is the doctor sent to live on the Earth, serving a slender few of those in need.

This is the past, and it’s not clear how deep into the past.

“But you know why we don’t leave,” she says.  “Why we don’t take our wheel and fly away.”

He knows one explanation, sure.

“Because we care about all of you,” she says.

“You care,” he says, scoffing.

“I know it doesn’t look like it.  But that’s the truth.  This system was set up long, long ago.  Ages before I was born.  The earth was already overpopulated and sickly, but there was enough energy and talent left to build the diamond wheel, and the most deserving went there to live and work.  To do their best to remake the world below.”

“When’s that work coming?” he teases.

She laughs sadly.  “Twelve billion of you, and barely any of us.  For the first thousand years, we tried bringing order and good smart government to you, and it backfired.  Some efforts caused a billion to die, or more.  And at least twice, the earth itself has come close to death.”

“But you didn’t leave,” he says.

“Because we couldn’t.”

He shifts his weight, anticipating what comes next.

“We can’t stop caring about you,” she says.

He laughs.

She lets him.

The laughter ends.  He says, “I guess you must care.  You send people down here to be doctors and aides and whatnot.  You’ve got a nice lottery system set up, giving the lucky of us just enough care to keep us going.”

“It’s the most we can do,” she says.

“You should know.  You’re the doctor.”

“But there’s something else. Something you don't realize.”


“It's something that I couldn’t even suspect, because...well, I think there’s good reasons why not…”

“I’m stupid.  Explain it simply.”

“The rejuvenation process.”

“That we get tastes of, if we’re lucky,” he says.

She says, “No, I mean the full rejuvenation.  The reason that I’m three hundred years old, and perfect.”

Matt says nothing, staring at her body.

“The rejuvenation is everything,” she says.  “And it’s what keeps everything the same, for us above and even for you down here.”

“I am stupid.  I don’t understand.”

“What the chambers do when they rebuild us,” she says.  “They put everything back to where it was when we were twenty.  But that also resets our habitual need to help the Earth.  Of course we can’t help you very much at all.  We don't have the resources, and in a lot of ways, we're just as trapped as you. We make ourselves beautiful, and at the same time, we make ourselves hopeful too.  So much hope, so much idealism, rekindled every time we sleep inside those machines.”

“You figured this out, did you?”

“Some years ago, yes.”

“Rejuvenations keep you stuck?”

“It’s a subroutine inside the social machinery.  And it’s buried so deep that we can’t appreciate it.  Much less change it.”

“But why is it there?”

“To hold us in orbit.  To force us to care, but not enough to make a difference.”

Matt stares out the window, at a star that isn’t a star moving quickly and silently across the dirty night sky.

“So you don’t care,” he says.  “It’s just a reflex.”


“I don’t believe you.”

She slips away from him.

“And even if I did believe...what good would it do…?”

“I’m pregnant, Matt.”

He says nothing.

“With your child,” she says.  “A daughter.”

He nods, measuring his own shifting emotions.

“What if I raised her in a certain way?” the woman asks.  “What if I could make her skeptical, raise her to refuse the refurbishings?”

“What are we talking about?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“You want to raise her not to care?”

“No, not that,” she says, angry now.  “But to care for her own reasons.  If that’s what I can do...what will you do…?”


In the remote future:

A woman has told an old story to her daughter. They sit inside a dark little room, and the girl is upset with what she has heard.

“They sent those people down to that awful world,” she complains.  “Sent them there and stole their wheel and flew away.”

“Justice can look harsh,” her mother warns.

“I hate how that story ends,” says the girl.


"I'm sorry. We're not supposed to hate, mother. I know."

“And besides, darling. Why do you think the story is done?"

The girl says nothing.

"Every story is a lie," her mother warns.  "To tell one tale, you have to make everything simple. Make one sharp point, and a thousand other sharp points have to be hidden. And the biggest lie? That final chapter, those polished last words. Frankly, they mean nothing. Because reality never dies, and nothing ever ends.

"Who knows? Even against horrible odds, the Earth might survive out there somewhere.”

Then together, mother and daughter step outdoors, out into a beautiful wilderness world, walking beneath a sky filled with diamond wheels.