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1 – Grind Above
The Munson residence, Skyward City.
August, 147 Post Impact.
Braap braap braaap!
Braap braap braaap!
“Mmnuu…. No!” George hit the snooze icon hovering at his bedside.
Blessed silence. Cozy luxury, sheets warm and tucked tight around him. George shut everything out. This was all he ever wanted. Blessed silence, white-washed peace fading to sleep. This alone was his secret, favorite thing.
Braap braap braaap!
“Mmnnooo!” He reached out, touched the projected bedside screen, and slid the alarm off.
Yes… he thought, burrowing down into his pillow. Don’t think nothing. Don’t do nothing. This all I want… all I have to do. If I just… don’t… wake… He would have thought “If I just don’t wake, nothing will bother me,” but he fell back into unconsciousness before the thought put itself together. George smacked his lips, perfectly content, and resumed drooling. He didn’t even hear his wife calling, and would have ignored her if he had.
Jude stopped calling. She hit a button.
A field coalesced under him, smart enough to differentiate between sheets and occupant. It kicked up, none too gently, waking him into a panicked state, and dumped him on his feet. Hard.
Jude and Rosa had been working on George for years. They had this down to an art.
The bed sank into the floor behind him. Droids whisked the bedding off to be laundered.
George would have screamed profanities, but even the rough treatment of the house’s fields couldn’t fully wake him up. So he just groaned and accepted his lot, beginning the rituals of waking. Still groggy, he shuffle-stumped over to the window, slumped forward, and face-planted on the outward-leaning transparent span. It tingled a little. A line of drool made its sluggy way down the surface, popping and evaporating.
The window gave a little under his weight, but held, cushioning him. Like much of the building, the window was a force-field, projected and delicately balanced by a staff of AIs. The building was little more than stacked layers of featherlight alloy radial beams with spun-polymer flooring in between. Everything else was constructed of projected kinetic fields with holographic overlays. George’s home was beautiful, but if it were all really made of the hardwood, marble and curving, vast panes of glass it appeared to be, the stratohab would rain in bits down below the Deck.
They lived in a world of virtual construction, where what looked and felt like a solid window only actually existed for as long as the AIs paid attention and the power stayed on. Most found it best not to think about it too much.
George cracked open one eye, honed in on the drool, and watched it sizzle away. The fields were fastidiously self-cleaning. The slight tingle where his skin touched meant they didn’t quite know what to make of him and his sleep-scuzzed face. That tingle was part of his morning ritual; a mild buzz to wake him enough to get to his coffee. Once his brain was awake enough to comprehend the drool he focused outside, on the far drop to the Deck below. The clouds were calm today, an endless carpet of puffy white, spreading on and on to the horizon. The only break in the monotony were the thin columns of his city, rising up from the clouds. The buildings were spaced widely, each a huge, saucer- or kidney-shaped bulge atop its impossibly thin column.
“Column” was a misnomer, of course. No one could build a stick over twenty miles high and balance a high-rise condo atop it. The columns were more like dangling umbilicals: bundles of power conduits, plumbing and conveyor rails diving below the Deck. The stratohabs floated above the clouds, held aloft by invisible hands of force projected by gargantuan field generators down on the poisoned ground. So long as the fusion plants churned, his city stayed in the air.
Again, people mostly tried not to think about it. Pharma made a killing on anti-anxiety drugs these days.
George rolled his eyes from one familiar building to the next, taking in the skyline as sunrise painted the Deck and gilded the columns. There were already cargo movers and sky buses zooming about. At the horizon he saw his own workplace, a great blocky affair on five columns, with a little afterthought of modern, sweeping office space jutting off one corner. Skyward Fabrications, the heart of Skyward City. He caught a glimmer rising up one column: a shuttlevator bringing goods up from below. Shipments never stopped, not on the weekend, not overnight. Mondays were the worst, with the backlog of inventory to check in and distribute. Food, goods, components for Operation Dandelion…
Squinting, he saw a glimmer of movement on the external platform – shipments being readied for lift.
Aw, for cryin’ out loud! The Crane’s flying over today!
The Orbital Crane had fields strong enough to lift objects from ground-level to orbit. Every project, every timetable, everything they did in his city revolved around the Crane’s schedule. If Mondays were the worst, then Flyover Mondays deserved a brand new adjective.
George looked down from the promise of another day’s drudgery and stared into the Deck. He’d done well for his family, working his way up until they could afford a condo in an upscale Stratohab – one of the original luxury models, built before the Impact. Everything Jude had ever asked for: good appliances, updated AIs, well-to-do neighbors. Now that they’d been there a few years, she’d started complaining that they hadn’t saved up for a bigger condo, higher up, past the taper. “I look out the windows and all I see is the boring old Deck, rolling away. If we had a higher unit, we’d have open skies and starry nights,” she’d say. “Why didn’t you think of that?”
He shook his head. Whatever. He liked the view. He liked waking up to the Deck, a carpet of clouds. And you could see plenty of sky, no matter where you were. They were twenty miles over the ground, forever above the clouds. You want sky? You couldn’t get away from it. Humans had been sky-dwellers ever since mountainous Fenrir’s path crossed Earth’s.
He liked the clouds because he liked to wonder; what was it like down below? It was all ice, radiation and scorched earth now… but he had to wonder what it was like, way back when, to have miles and miles of solid stuff in every direction.
Slumped on the windowpane, George dozed off again into dreamy bliss.
“Geooooorrrrrge!” Jude’s voice, squawking through the intercom, dragged him back awake.
He blinked and pushed himself off the sloping window.”Hmm… whu?” As his mind growled awake, signals from his body overruled his base desires. Suck. Wanna sleep. Super suck. Gotta pee.
“Mmm. Coming…” he mumbled, knowing she couldn’t hear and wouldn’t care. They had a routine. She probably knew down to the second how long it took him to stagger out of the room after she ejected him.
“Oh, Mister Jorje, joo bes’ endale, endale!” Rosa’s voice emanated from the walls, and George winced. The house-mind’s voice stroked his nerves with all the gentility of a bag of glass. “Joo gon’ havva take–”
“Rosa! Stuff it!”
George stumped to the bathroom, dropping his PJs as he went. Scurrying droids flocked to clean up his mess while Rosa chattered, “Aye dios mio! Look dis mess joo leave. What, gringo, joo tink I jour nanny? Now move dat pasty ass, or joo gonna be late after dropping off–”
“Rosa! Can it!” George’s ears burned. He didn’t like raising his voice.
The AI voice faded, emulating the sound of someone leaving the room. “Well, eskoooooose mE for jus wanna be helpfu…”
George tried to descend back into the comfortable fuzziness of his early-morning stupor. If only he could figure out where Leroy got that bargain-bin personality patch, and how the boy had embedded it so well. She jangled him right into full consciousness. But George’s stupor was powerful, and reclaimed lost territory easily. Fuzz-brained and numb, he entered the hygiene unit. Void. Pulse-shower. Sonic-Depil. Computer-cuff to right wrist. Smartsuit dressed itself on him, with the usual peripheral gadgets woven in.
He slumped down at the kitchen table and looked into the sunrise. The windows auto-polarized for him. Jude pushed his breakfast over. Whatever complaints George had, she’d never failed to warm up a good breakfast. Bakon rashers and hash from the automated ag-factories down below the Deck, coffee from the finest precision-tuned hydroponic stack. It was said that the “meet” was indistinguishable from the true meat of old, though few alive had ever tasted anything different. George didn’t care, happily gnawing the salty, fatty slabs of whatever-plus-protien. Good food was a science, and the robots in the sealed production facilities below the Deck handled it well.
After the first wave of hyper-caf from the enhanced coffee hit his bloodstream, he woke enough to say, “Thanks, dear.”
“Mmmm,” she said, not breaking stride as she tapped away at a projection of rapidly-cascading multi-colored tablets which whizzed, binged and shazaamed as she vanquished them.
“You code a new recipe in for this bakon? It’s goo-”
“Wasabi-maple. High trend flavinoid of the moment. Enjoy – it’s predicted passe in thirteen hours.”
“Well, but we’ll still be able to get it after–”
“Shhhh! Midwive’s conference today, and three cases ready to pop any time. ‘Specially Mazzi – that belly of hers gets any bigger, the kid’ll birth her. I don’t clear this level before facing all that crap, I’ll completely glitch.”
George shut up and ate, knowing better than to expect more from her when she was in one of her puzzles. The polarization filters made the room dim, and the lights were low. In the light from the game projection, flickering on the lower slopes of her eyebrows, nose and chin, Jude looked so much sharper and hard-edged than the woman he’d married.
And she’s the very first person some babies meet. Yikes.
He reached out to a minimized interface projection over the breakfast bar and pulled down, expanding the holographic window to watch the morning news.
A podium before a room full of reporters. A lectern bearing the seal of the Civic Administration stood on the podium. A crawler of 3-d text hovered in front of George’s holo-window, declaring “SPECIAL COVERAGE!” in the newsfeed’s “official business” font. Adminstrator Kopp took the stage – with her dark skin, hair a flawless bob in natural grey and trademark color-blocked skirt-suit, she was easy to identify. Everyone knew the Chief Administrator, top dog of the human race, on sight.
There were salutations and formalities, then Administrator Kopp smiled into the cameras and got to business. “My fellow citizens, I am pleased to admit that the construction of the Orbital Lift Crane’s expanded payload apparati has been completed. It has been a long, arduous journey for our engineers, construction crews, AIs, for all of us. We have conferred with Indus,” the prime AI overseer of Operation Dandelion and ground-level production, “and we have set the long-awaited test-lift of the abandoned Tower 315 in Skyward City for eight days from now.”
George nearly choked on his bakon as the reporters on-screen went berserk. He swallowed the half-chewed bite and said to Jude, “You hear that? The test-lift is next Tuesday!”
“Can you believe that?”
“When I see it.” She didn’t even look up.
George shook his head in wonder. “We could be living in space in… in like a month!” A dawning joy filled his heart. This might be my last Flyover Monday! EVER!
Administrator Kopp gestured for quiet. “I know you are all as excited as we are in the Administration. Heck, it’s been hard to think these last few weeks in the Administration Offices, there’s been so much buzz.” Polite chuckles from the audience. “But let’s not get ahead of the game just yet. Indus reports that the fleet of Ark-Frames is nearly complete, and 95% stocked, but we haven’t developed a timetable yet for the final disembarkation. We will proceed with the test-lift. Everything waits on that. If that succeeds – and I am confident it will – then we will move on to the next phase of Operation Dandelion. If we find problems, then we will do as we always have done – assess, adapt, and proceed. We are the survivors of the Impact, the seed of Humanity’s new dawn across the Solar System. I thank each and every one of you for your efforts, for your part in Operation Dandelion and the salvation of our civilization. Now, I have time for a few questions…”
George didn’t hear the babbling of the pundits, and minimized the screen before the talking heads got into their analyses, fact-checking, expert interviews, and other wind-baggery. His head buzzed. I’ll get to see it? I’ll get to be there? There had been so many delays and hiccups in Operation Dandelion – the unified project of humanity to finally get off of their broken-down homeworld – that he and everyone else had stopped bothering hoping to see it happen.
“It’s really happening now!”
Jude sighed. “You heard the lady. It might fail. It’s just a test lift. Don’t get yourself worked up. OpDandi’s gonna plow on its own pace. It’ll happen when it happens. ‘Till then, babies keep on needing delivering and shipments keep on needing… ahh,” she flicked her hand, “whatever it is you do.”
“QC inspection and routing control team management. Geeze, would it kill ya to remember?”
George’s fifteen-year-old daughter came out of her room, walked to the front door, and left, right on schedule. She didn’t stop for breakfast; that would have given George enough time to process what she was wearing (or wasn’t) and make a fuss. What little there was of her getup was mostly black. The door shussshed shut, and she was gone a full two seconds before he could raise a finger and open his mouth. “H-hey…” the protest died, his brain catching on to the fact that he’d missed the window of opportunity. He could chase her down, make a fuss about how his beautiful little girl would not flounce around looking like a tramp… but his food would get cold, and there was no winning embarrassing a teenage girl in front of her friends.
Jude cleared her level, and George grabbed for a little more human interaction. “You think they make ghost-busting modules for home-minds?”
Jude stopped, her coffee hovering at her lips, and scowled. She mouthed his words, then tilted her head to one side. “What?” It was just one word, but she managed to pack a whole boatload of derision into it.
“For the Phantom’” said George. “Spooky thing’s been flitting around here for weeks, quiet as death, just passing through at all hours, not saying a word. Creeps me out.”
“The… Phantom… Oh! Don’t call her that, George!”
“Well, what? If it’s not a phantom, then… maybe it’s a demon, who’s eaten my little girl’s soul and taken over her body?”
Jude snorted. “Don’t call her the Phantom, and don’t call her a demon. Call her Harper.” Then she muttered into her cup, “You’re the one who insisted on that stupid name.”
George shoveled a forkfull of eggz into his mouth, and talked as he chewed (he considered this to be one of his better skills). “Harper? Harper’s the name I gave to the little girl who used to talk my ear off about solar sails and escape velocities. My little astronaut.” He pointed his fork at the door. “That’s not Harper. That’s the Phantom.”
Jude shook her head. “She’s fifteen, George. We all turn into little witches at that age. She’ll swing the other way. In two weeks, you’ll probably miss the Phantom.”
George checked his chrono and leaped from the table. “Holy Moly! Look at the time!” He left his breakfast unfinished, but held on to his coffee, slurping as he scrabbled for his bag and his car.
“Errr… where did I put that thing?” He checked under chairs, behind the couch, in the coat closet. “We get this fancy modern house, all open and bright… spartan decor… here? No! And still I can’t keep track of my own car!”
Jude sipped the last of her coffee and waded through Hurricane George to the kitchen counter. She picked up George’s lunch and his car and held them out for him. “Here, goofball. I need you to drop off Leroy. My car’s on the fritz again.”
“Aw, fer cryin’ out lou– Wait, Leroy? Leroy! But how am I gonna–“
“Maybe if you didn’t saddle me with your spazzy second-hand cars, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Ooooh, Mister Jorje!” Rosa’s voice cackled from the ceiling. “She toooold jou!”
George spluttered, “But but but–“
“But-but-but. But I should leave you at the mercy of the public shuttle. I’m the one who’s probably going to have to go tearing across the city at a moment’s notice. And yet somehow you’ve convinced me that you should get the good car. Well, no Leroy, no car.” Jude twisted up one side of her face, a know-it-all smirk he found oddly fetching, even still, and tapped her wrist. “Tick-tock, George.” Even though people didn’t keep watches on their wrists anymore, and clocks didn’t tick without an anachronism app, the gesture kept its meaning.
George deflated. Not that he ever inflated much before Jude burst him. “Right, right.”
A freight-train of noise and light hit George as Leroy’s door opened for him; all the spectacle of a planetary assault. Leroy had his holo-game blown up to fill the whole room. A ringed world, dozens of moons, and thousands of improbable warships whirled around them. Most were in some phase of exploding.
The sudden vertigo did not react well with his breakfast. George fought down his hash, eggz and bakon and forged into the fray, stalking through the battlezone like a god, towering over a combat carrier, making for Leroy and his game chair, which had a cockpit projected around it.
“Leroy! What did we say about conquest before school?”
His moon-faced son didn’t even blink. “Rmm mm mmm mmmmm mnnm…”
“No games in the morning, Son! You’re gonna be bouncing off the walls, doing everything but paying attention!”
“Mmm… srry.” Leroy blasted away.
George sighed and touched Leroy’s shoulder. “Come on. We have to go.”
Leroy shrugged away and started an attack run on a capital ship. “Jus’ two minutes. Can’t stop, Dad. Gotta getta save point.”
George smirked. “Rosa. Save game state and close.” The holo winked out, revealing a room that was a bit more of a disaster than the zero-gee battleground. George cut off his son’s protests. “‘Save points’ were old news when I was your age, kid. You gotta stop thinking I never played a video game. Trigger-Finger George, they used to call me in my sim-league days. Now get your venture-belt.”
Leroy dripped out of his chair, dove into a pile of rubbish, and came out with the belt clicked around his waist. “Whatever you say, Dad.”
George put a hand on the tyke’s forehead, blocking him from leaving the room. “And clean up this mess, kid.”
“Uh, but Dad–”
“Now! What, you raised in a barn?”
“Ain’t been barns in almost a century,” muttered the boy. With all the weight of the world on his shoulders, Leroy laboriously summoned an interface and tapped the “tidy up” icon. Bots flitted into the room, stowing toys and sorting clothes, while stains better left un-named sizzled away into oblivion.
“Aye carrumba Mister Jorje! I have to clean up after everyone? Jour boy he gon’ be a slob jus like jou! Maybe one day jou can learn clean joo own mess, huh?”
“Rosa, tidying up is your function!” George felt a little thrill at his display or authority. Satisfied that Rose would bring order to the bedroom, George ushered Leroy out.
Behind him, Rosa’s voice muttered as her droids scrubbed away, “Tree million force-field projection calculations I manage every second, wit holographic overlay and texturing, and he says I made for ‘tidying up?’ I like to see heem herd fourty-seven droids at once…”
Out on the launch-pad George set down his car and synched it with his and Leroy’s venture-belts. The car, just a brief-case sized module, rose between them. Fields reached out, forming seats and restraints under their backsides so they were sitting in mid-air. Then it projected the main field, a bubble which surrounded them, tear-drop shaped, transparent on top and opaqued on the bottom. With a nudge at the controls they drifted up and joined the flow of traffic. A school of similar tear-drop cars whizzed all around them. George had the car route them past Leroy’s school.
“So, Son, what are you studying today?”
His six-year-old stopped making warring spaceships out of his hands and shrugged. “Thermodynamics, I think. And Impact History. She’s gonna make me do a report on Robert Krissy… Krichan… Krinna–”
“Krishnashankar. What a visionary.” George’s eyes got misty. “You know, his brilliance saved–”
“I know. Saved us from the cold, kept us in the light.” Leroy’s face brightened “I’ll start practical force-fields soon!”
“Ooh, ooh, and today’s the last day of astrogation in sim-gym. There’s a test on orbital insertion.”
“Well, they sure are moving you kids fast these days…” A projected billboard loomed over the stream of traffic, featuring Administrator Kopp and a countdown to the test-lift of Tower 315. George whistled. “Then again, you guys are gonna have a wild new job market up there.” George leaned back and sipped his coffee. He hadn’t set it down, and didn’t need to steer; that was what the car was for. Feeling him lean back, the car reclined the seat further, thinking he wanted to lay down. Coffee splattered his pants. “Damn it! Stupid fritzy dog-brained piece of– Er, I mean…”
Leroy beamed at him. “Go on, Dad. Piece of what?”
“Nothing.” He tapped the holo-icon for the chair controls and slid the back-angle upward. Manually, he thought, like some kinda caveman. “Nothing, son. Anyway, here’s your school.”
He tapped the homing switch on Leroy’s venture-belt. The belts were smaller, less-sophisticated versions of cars. They couldn’t be steered, just set to home in on pre-programmed destinations. The belt extended a little field bubble around his son, separated from the car and dropped down to the school’s urchin-packed landing pad.
George flew onward, his car synched with traffic, over and under the bulging, rounded, thirty-story buildings perched above an endless sea of clouds. The buildings were saucer, losenge, kidney and even boomerang shaped, held up above the poison by the unending labor of fusion plants and field projectors below, tended by an army of dutiful robots. The stout umbilical columns gave them the look of towers beyond John Graham Jr.’s wildest dreams. Sipping his coffee, George watched the city fly by as the stream of cars brought him to the blocky, atypical, five-column headquarters of Skyward Fabrications, the buzzing nerve center of their city in the sky, churning away for Operation Dandelion.
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