THE EARTH IS CROWDED, 17 billion men and women crowded. At the end of the 21st Century, people desperate for space have sprawled onto every available sliver of land, squeezed into every crack; even the most difficult and remote areas have succumbed to their insatiable need for land. Mankind has trampled the vast forests of North America, scraped the tundra of Asia and crawled up and over the mountains of every continent. Every acre of arable land has been farmed and every mountainside terraced to create more. Not a rock has been left unturned or a tree standing that could provide sustenance or shelter for the teaming masses of humanity.
With one exception.
The Grand Canyon in the Southwestern United States has repelled the onslaught. Two billion years of history have shrugged the human lichen off its towering walls and expansive gorge, like a slap in the face of the desperate overcrowding. Even the ancient dwellings of aboriginal cultures and the ugly tourist structures of the 20th Century have been wiped clean, returned to their natural state of barren rock and sage native to the Arizona desert. It was not nature that won this battle, however. It was a strength far greater than any natural force – the will of single man. A man so powerful and so wealthy that he could afford to buy the very wind that whipped through the time-carved gorge.
* * * * *
Dr. Alexia Serguey was awakened by some bump, or movement of the jet aircraft. She blinked a few times to regain her surroundings, glancing at the time readout on her VR glasses, 04:30. Could it be only six hours since she had boarded in Reykjavik? Weeks of frenetic planning and effort has left her a shell of exhaustion. Once on the jet, she had only the energy left to collapse into her seat, snap the buckle and fall asleep. Alexia scanned the dimly lit cabin, the windows shining black against the night sky; the interior whispering the vast wealth of its owner. The walls of the cabin glowed with the deep warmth of real wood, not the geneered junk that was supposed to look like wood, but never quite did. The latches and handles gleamed of polished brass. Alexia looked down at her stockinged feet, where someone had done her the courtesy of removing her shoes. She dug her toes into the thick carpet, enjoying the sensuous pleasure. The large cabin was arranged more like a private club than a jet. Tall, soft leather seats were set in groups of four around short round tables. On her table was laid a set of exquisite china, delicately filled with red grapes, cheeses, warm rolls, jam and butter. Next to this, a crystal goblet with ice water and a carafe of coffee. She didn’t recall ever seeing a server, yet the ice in her water had not melted and the rolls steamed with fresh warmth. Her favorite breakfast, how did they know?
Alexia filled one of the carved glasses with water and drank deeply. It lacked the steely taste of antibacterials that municipal water required. The coffee was rich and mild and made her sigh with each sip. The rest of breakfast was more flavorful than anything she had tasted in years. It had the complex richness of non-modified food. Geneered food always went too far, fruit was too sweet, bread too bland and butter too rich.
Finally satisfied, Alexia peered again into the dim cabin. She realized she was not alone. The three other seats in her small sitting area were empty. But there were three other seating areas identical to her own. These were full. To her left, four large men sat rigidly straight staring directly ahead. Their table was empty. They looked alike, hard chiseled faces and overly developed bodies that seemed to be stuffed into identical black suits, their muscles threatening to tear through the expensive fabric. Clearly they were security.
Alexia looked to the next group. Two men, two women, all of indeterminate age. They had the generic good looks of geneering, gene manipulation that could give a 60 year old the skin of a twenty year old. All of them stared into their VR glasses, hypnotized by virtual reality. Each was in his or her own unique world. It could be work, an imaginary office, or recreation, rock climbing the icy slopes of Mount Everest, or the sweaty warmth of a virtual sex room. Their arms and legs twitched with the false reality of a world which didn’t require limbs.
Alexia quickly looked away, to the final group. Two men were conversing in the loud whispers of a scientific argument. Alexia smiled with recognition. They were bent close to each other, oblivious to the rest of the world. The third, a stern looking woman, shot back a look at Alexia, pinched her lips tighter, then glared back into space. Alexia felt her own face. “Do I look like that?”
Next to the pinched face woman was a soft pudgy man perhaps in his late sixties. He had either chosen not to alter his genes, or had altered them to look like this. He smiled gently at Alexia. She was reminded of her grandfather when she was a child. But her grandfather was long gone, everything in her past was gone. She looked away, letting her mind wander, something she hadn’t done in a long time.
A moment later the elderly man was standing at her table. “I hope you had a pleasant rest. May I sit down?”
Alexia motioned to the empty seats with an open hand. “This is not my jet, sit where you like.”
The older man dropped into the chair directly across from Alexia, reached his hand out. “My name is Horace Spartan. I live, well I used to live in London. Where I was head of neurosurgery at…”
“Oxford.” Alexia interrupted. “The Doctor Spartan. The doctor who removed the first fully intact neuron from a living brain? That Doctor Spartan?”
Spartan’s smile seemed to freeze on his face. “Yes, but that was some time ago. Unfortunately, no one found any use for a brainless brain cell.” His smile thawed at his own pun. “That was the last publicly funded project at Oxford. Our team separated, going off to pharmaceutical labs or to corporate R & D. I stayed at Oxford to teach. Not much money in that, but it keeps food on the table. Not food like this, of course.” He gestured at the table, “but I stay alive.”
“But your work was brilliant; no one has been able to repeat it.” Alexia said.
“And why should they? It was dead-end research, the frivolous meanderings of mad scientists. No financial rewards in it, so it was dropped. Rightly so.” He leaned toward Alexia, melting into her grandfather again. “But what about you, Doctor Serguey, a brilliant career in neuro-biology. Too many successes to count. Why are you here?” He gestured around the cabin, “You don’t need to revive your legacy, you’re living yours.”
“Very presumptuous of you to think you know me.” Alexia’s voice was ice.
He laughed. “We all know you, of you I should say. It is why we are here. Your reputation is a beacon to research scientists. How else could we be convinced to leave our lives to join…well you know.” His voice dropped to a whisper.
“No I don’t know. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to wrap up a few personal matters before we arrive.” Alexia adjusted her VR glasses on her face to give the illusion she was plunging into virtual reality.
“Of course doctor, my apologies for disturbing you.” Dr. Spartan rose, bowed and returned to his previous seat.
Alexia glared out the broad window into the blackness. Why did Spartan seem to know more about their destination than she did? But how could he know, no one could. Her mind drifted back to her conversation with Tatsuo Hamachi only a month ago. Tatsuo Hamachi, the man who owned this jet and now everyone in it.
* * * * *
“I’m still not sure what you mean by ‘project.’” Alexia had said.
Hamachi’s expressionless face hovered large in the void of virtual reality. “I understand your trepidation doctor. Unfortunately, I cannot say more over a live connection. It is simple. We are doing primary research on brain function and connectivity. We are nearing a breakthrough and I want the best person to lead my teams.” His face grew implacable. “You are the best Doctor Serguey. My financial offer has demonstrated that, has it not?”
“Yes, yes. Your offer is more than generous, Mr. Hamachi. That is not the issue. You are asking me to leave everything behind, my career, my home. To be cut off from everything I know. You won’t even say for how long. You ask a lot, but you reveal very little. How can I make such an important decision with so little data?”
“The way you make all your decisions, doctor. I have looked deep into your career. You have an uncanny knack for making things work when everyone and everything points to failure. You use intuition, a rare quality in the late 21st Century. I want that quality leading my project.” His face remained smooth, but his eyes sparkled with excitement. “Think of the rewards, doctor. Of being part of something extraordinary.” Hamachi sighed then continued. “It is so frustrating to speak this way, but I cannot reveal what is happening in my research facilities. You must trust me. Would you hesitate to lead the team that first sequenced human DNA, or the one which pioneered genetic engineering? What we are doing is as important – if not more so.” Hamachi’s voice went flat again. “I am sorry doctor, but I can only give you another 24 hours to decide. Then I will be forced to accept second best. Doctor Spiro has accepted pending your decision.”
Alexia clamped her emotions. “You will have my answer in 24 hours. Thank you for your generous offer Mr. Hamachi.” And she severed the connection.
Doctor Spiro, Alexia fumed. He was all show. Spiro had clawed his way to prominence on the backs of talented research scientists with no talent of his own. She knew at that moment she would take the job, she was too competitive to do otherwise. “Damn, Hamachi knows how to manipulate me.”
* * * * *
Alexia’s mind returned to the present. She found herself looking down at the dark earth gently sliding by. A string of headlights marked the roads. Transport trucks loaded with supplies for the insatiable cities. Ants carrying grains of sugar back to the colony. The smaller lights seemed to feed the brilliant spread in the distance – Las Vegas. The modest sized city of 25 million had prospered as a hub for the vast solar farms of the Southwest. It had been founded on decadence a century and half ago. But that had become irrelevant with the advent of virtual reality. Why travel for what you could have anytime with a blink of your eye. So the city, like so many, had reinvented itself. Successfully, if the intensity of light was any indication.
They were close. Las Vegas was only 200 miles from the Grand Canyon. With that thought, she felt the engine noise decrease and the jet begin its descent. Her heart skipped a beat. Close to the unknown, her decision was about to reveal itself as foolish caprice, or brilliant intuition.
Alexia shifted her gaze to the brightening sky to her right. The dull gray night sky was being replaced by turquoise and hints of pink against the pitch black of the earth. She couldn’t remember when she had last seen a sunrise, a real sunrise. At least not as an adult. “It’s lovely.” She whispered to herself.
As the jet banked to the left, her view became an empty sky. Alexia turned her head to look out the other side of the cabin. And she gasped. There below was the deep gash of the Grand Canyon delineated against the high desert plan. The deep cut in the earth was a black void against the brightening greens and grays of the desert. As beautiful as it was, that wasn’t what had caught her breath. Floating in the blackness of the canyon was an enormous golden sphere. The sunrise reflected off the smooth surface creating the illusion it was a second sun rising inside the Grand Canyon. “Stratumentis.” She breathed. Hamachi’s floating city, her destination and her destiny.
Hamachi had purchased the Grand Canyon for the sole purpose of building his enormous floating city, Stratumentis. At over 3,000 feet in diameter, more than half a mile wide, it was suspended by impossibly strong nanofiber cables strung from towers placed along the rim. Two towers on each side of the canyon, over one mile high were anchored into the ancient rock to hold the enormous weight of the spherical city. The suspension system was invisible to Alexia from this height and gave the city the illusion of floating. The golden surface was made from Crystaleen, a synthetic polymer grown in high earth orbit at enormous expense. It had extraordinary properties. It was as light as plastic, as strong as steel, as transparent as glass with the added ability to turn opaque with a small electric charge. But most important, it was an excellent solar collector, capable of powering the entire city.
Stratumentis was self-contained and self-sufficient.
The jet continued its slow banking turn, straightened and came to a landing on a private runway on the north rim of the canyon. A beautiful woman in a blue and green uniform led them to a small adobe building. The interior was not as richly appointed as the jet, but it was comfortably understated. From there, the nine passengers and their guide sped through a glass lined tunnel to the transport station. The young woman simply gestured to the private tram, where only the jet passengers boarded. The interior again spoke of Hamachi’s vast wealth, plush leather seats, thick carpet, wood and brass trim. Alexia didn’t notice any of these however; she was mesmerized by the incredible views. The sun had risen now and the steep walls of the canyon had turned to fire. The sides of the tram were nearly all glass, Crystaleen to be precise. One could watch the sides of the canyon, or even the bottom, 6,000 feet below, the river a ribbon of blue just now visible. Stratumentis had seemed large from the jet, but it was enormous from the tram and grew larger with their approach. No one spoke.
Alexia had been briefed on the design of the city, she supposed they all had. Stratumentis was laid out like an inside-out globe, using longitude and latitude for direction, with the additional dimension of depth. Logical enough, she grasped the concept without understanding its scale. The sphere was two hundred stories high and fifty rings deep at its equator. The interior spaces were used for mechanical rooms, offices, storage and most important, research laboratories, hundreds of them. The outer rooms were living spaces, apartments, restaurants and meeting rooms.
Alexia thought of her own apartment in Reykjavik. Windows were dangerous and wasteful amenities in the northern latitudes. Exterior walls were coated with insulation and solar collectors. But Alexia had chosen her apartment in the expensive high rise because it had a view. A few square feet of glass that looked out over the dense city of Reykjavik and to the bleak landscape beyond.
Stratumentis grew larger until it filled their entire view, then swallowed them whole. The tram slid quietly into the city station identical to the one at the rim. Four guides met them, two men and two women, all in the now familiar blue and green uniforms of Stratumentis. One of the male guides, the leader, waited while they gathered in the terminal. He was impossibly good looking, as if carved by a Greek artisan.
“Your attention, please.” His voice a silky tenor. “Thank you. Before we continue, please turn on your VR glasses, you will not need to search for an address, there is only one. Good. Mr. Hamachi will now speak with you.”
Alexia’s view changed from the plush interior of the tram terminal, to an expansive canyon view, similar to the one on the tram ride, but closer, somehow grander. She staggered, then caught herself. The human race had developed an additional sense with the advent of virtual reality. One could be fully immersed in an illusory reality, yet keep an unconscious hold on the physical world. This second sense kept people from stumbling or falling over when encountering contradictory input. This developed sense was known simply as “grip.”
“Welcome to Stratumentis.” Hamachi slowly resolved into the view. He was sitting behind a heavy wooden desk where only his upper body, face and arms could be seen. Behind him, the walls of the Grand Canyon flamed red and orange with the rising sun. “Each of you has been invited here to share a vision, a vision of possibility.” His hand swept across the view. “Look around you. Impossibility becomes reality here. Open space, pristine nature in a crowded world. You have all been invited here to be part of a grand project. But there is a cost. And that cost is no communication outside of Stratumentis. None.” His eyes narrowed. “Think carefully, that includes virtual clubs, entertainment, even banking. All of your work and socializing will be done here, and only here.”
Hamachi’s eyes seemed to bore into her head. Alexia wondered if it appeared that way to the others as well.
Hamachi continued. “Each of you has signed a non-disclosure agreement. You have promised to give your best effort and skills to the tasks ahead. But that is not enough. You must also pledge your loyalty to an ideal you do not even know yet. Consider carefully one last time. If you hesitate, or have doubts, remove yourself now. There will be no consequences. Simply tell one of the uniformed guides and you will be returned in the same manner you arrived. There will be no cost, no retribution; your former job will be waiting for you. This door does not swing both ways ladies and gentlemen.” The VR screen went blank.
Alexia let out the breath she’d been holding. She nodded toward the lead guide. “Let’s go, I’d like to get started.”
EZEKIEL MALAFFAIRES ENJOYED looking at his city before he had his eyes removed. The crumbling infrastructure of New Denver appealed to him. He vaguely remembered the intense blue desert sky above the city; now blocked by massive conduits crisscrossing the space between buildings like giant spider webs, their bulk threatening to tear the cornices off the ancient structures and fill the streets with rubble. Somehow they stood, while every year, more were added, until they filtered so much of the bright sun that the ground was only stippled with light – a gray jungle floor. And at night, if there was such a concept anymore, it was neither quite light nor dark enough. The weak colorless glow of low intensity diodes, ubiquitous to everything electronic, gave the gray world a macabre, nightmarish quality. The city was everything Ezekiel loved, anthropomorphized gloom.
Deep within the decaying wood and stone walls of New Denver, were the distinctly 21st Century inhabitants; teaming hoards of sleepless men and women sardined into cramped apartments. They toiled endless hours to pay for the electronic addiction that made their lives bearable – virtual reality. A man would work at midnight in China, 6:00 a.m. in London, and 3:00 p.m. in New York, all without ever leaving his room. On his VR glasses, he would see the projected reality of a large modern city with chrome office buildings towering into a cloudless sky. He would be one of the handsome executives in a perfectly tailored suit flirting with the buxom receptionist. And he would overhear the excited conversations of deals being made, the promise of inclusion and reward in this synthetic world. Cardboard flavored food, over chlorinated water, roving power outages and advanced sleep deprivation were not allowed in this manufactured world. And those who could afford it, never took their VR sets off, not even to sleep.
Reality wasn’t that interesting anymore, so Ezekiel had his eyes removed, replaced with high-speed network connectors linked directly to his optic nerves – prosthetic eyes with a plug where the pupil would have been. The worm colored network cable plugged directly into his eye-jack. It bounced when he blinked, and shuttered when his plastic eyes wandered. But instead of the imperfect projection of a VR set, he was immersed, fully bathed in synthetic reality. If he chose to see businessmen as man-sized banana slugs in suits, and their arrogant assistants as vertical centipedes, that’s what he saw. But more than saw, he smelled their earthy decay, and felt their slimy skin. virtual reality was not virtual for Ezekiel.
Ezekiel had not left his windowless apartment for years, had not even looked around without the enhanced vision of virtual reality. If he had, he would have seen the standard 20 by 20 foot cell of the single male. The apartment came furnished and he had changed nothing. Near the entrance sat a single plastic chair and a cheap synth-wood table, its top delaminating into sharp splinters. Lined along the adjacent wall sat narrow fiber-foam bed, darkly stained and sagging in the center. Beyond that, a wall unit housed a food storage and prep station where piles of empty containers spilled over and onto the floor. The far corner formed an exposed bathroom. Over the stained sink hung the room’s only mirror. If Ezekiel had bothered to look at himself, he would have seen a fleshy 35 year old man with thinning, greasy brown hair, tangled beard, broken yellow teeth and plastic eyes.
But on the I, the virtual network, Ezekiel chose who he would look like. Sometimes he was an immaculately dressed businessman, other times a muscular bronzed model. He could be a child, a woman, anything he desired. It depended only on his effort and skill to create new avatars. If nature had not been kind to him in reality, luck had blessed him in virtual reality. Ezekiel’s job was reaching into the network day and night stealing his way into secure sites, testing them for hardness. It was the perfect job for a misanthrope.
Ezekiel slid into the global satellite feed again this evening. He’d been snooping around banks and investment cores for days. His mind was spent and the view from space helped him relax. He knew the danger of breaking into the main link, but that only applied to the losers that got caught.
He felt like a space eagle from way up here, peering down on his prey. Ezekiel swooped around like this for a while, mindlessly looking at the brown and black tangle that was New Denver. His eyes wandered to the varying shades of green rectangles that surrounded the dense city. They extended into the distance, dotted only by the occasional farm depot then stopped entirely by the white caps of the Rocky Mountains themselves.
Ezekiel zoomed in and out, letting his imagination and the freedom of flying guide him. He’d seen all this many times, but he still relished the primal feeling of flying in his earthbound body. It was power and freedom from even the mundane laws of physics. Then something caught his attention. “What’s that?” He focused on a large brown area in the sea of variegated green. “Interesting, maybe a failed crop, or a genetic line gone wrong. Let’s take a closer look.” He muttered.
It was a barren field. That shouldn’t be strange in itself, it was winter after all. Perhaps they had simply harvested whatever crop had been growing. What was strange, was that there were small buildings scattered about the farmland. “Houses?” Ezekiel pondered. “Impossible.” A quick increase in magnification showed him that they were indeed houses – with smoke coming from their chimneys. They were burning something, perhaps wood! Ezekiel glanced at the longitude and latitude coordinates of this strange place and made a mental note of them.
The winter scene splintered into a flash of orange brilliance. “Shit!” The proximity alarm. Ezekiel had stayed too long inside the satellite’s computer system. Their anti-body software had finally sniffed his presence. Their counter measures were slow, but effective. If he couldn’t outrun them now, he’d be burning his system, changing eyes, and looking for a new place to live within the next few minutes. The penalty for breaking into the Global Satellite alliance was death. Getting caught was not an option.
Ezekiel blasted virtual flak into the air around him. It should give him the few precious seconds necessary to back out of the system, sweeping his tracks as he did. He froze as the anti-bodies surrounded the black nodes of software flak, licked one or two, then moved away. They hadn’t been fooled. “Damn, it’s not working. Time for more drastic measures.” Ezekiel cradled a small metallic sphere pulled from his jumpsuit. He gave it a quick twist, setting it for 400 milliseconds, then tossed it into the air. Simultaneously his other hand, the one in real space, yanked the cables from his prosthetic eyes. Ezekiel glimpsed an instant of the destructive flash of the system bomb before he jacked out of virtual reality.
“Damn, that was close, too close.” He muttered in the twilight gloom of his apartment. He knew that damaging their system was not an elegant way to escape. They couldn’t ignore sabotage, and they’d be looking for him. But not for a while, not before they got their satellite back online.
Ezekiel untangled himself from the jackchair, that all important piece of furniture that allowed him to lie comfortably prone for hours, even days if necessary, taking care of his bodily needs. He slapped a mobile VR set into his eyes so he could tap into the local VR. The filthy gloom of his apartment dissolved into an expansive south facing penthouse. The greasy jackchair became an elegant leather sofa, the rest of the furniture changed to match. It was the default setting that came with his apartment. Ezekiel groaned, he’d never gotten around to fixing it. Way too corporate wet-dream for his taste.
“Record location notes.” Ezekiel monotoned into the air. “Lambda negative 107 point 598 by Phi 38 point 865.” He knew his tired brain would lose the coordinates of the crazy farm houses if he didn’t note them. He tossed his exhausted body onto the crumpled bed. Tossed for a while, but was far too keyed up to sleep. “Solve the mystery, then I can sleep. OK, locate note coordinates on standard map.” Instantly his vision filled with a bird’s eye view of Western Colorado. The brown spot was green on the old satellite photo, now marked with a red pin. “Zoom 25%.” The field resolved into building roofs and wheat fields.
Ezekiel stared at this for a moment. “Location name?” A label appeared at the top of his virtual screen: Paonia, Colorado, population 0. “No, no, that’s the abandoned city. What is the name of this group of small houses?” “No data found” popped onto the screen. Ezekiel scratched his beard. “Research land records, use note coordinates.” “Match found” showed on his screen. He blink/clicked the hyperlink. The old county records filled the screen. Scanning through the legal mumbo-jumbo, Ezekiel finally came to the name of the land. “Gaialandra.”
“What the..?” A quick search of Gaialandra came up with very little, but enough. Gaialandra was the name of this bit of land or enclave held by the cult group called The Anti-Techs. Apparently they’d been in this spot for more than 50 years. Only a few hundred miles from New Denver, and he’d never heard of them. He must have flown over the area a dozen times. They blended perfectly during the rest of the seasons, but Anti-Techs wouldn’t use ‘geneered crops. And nothing else would grow in the winter.
More research revealed what little was known about the Anti-Techs. It was a small private group who lived 19th century lives. Their fields were tilled by horse and ox and their homes were heated with wood or dried manure. “Lovely.” Ezekiel mumbled. They only ate what they grew and made their own clothes. They didn’t even have electricity, and definitely no VR. “Idiots.” The mystery was solved, and not a very exciting one at that.”
Ezekiel lay on the lumpy bed still fuming about his clumsy escape. It would be weeks before he could back into the global feed. Someone had to pay for this inconvenience. He glared at the shingled roof tops of the Anti-Techs filling his screen. “Who would give a shit about these culters and their mangy bit of land.” The corners of his mouth broke through the tangle of beard into a cruel grin. “Maybe there is someone who would be interested. I think it’s time UnitedFarms met its gentle neighbors. I’ll bet they could coax a few more stalks of wheat from that sleeping soil.”
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