Prologue: November 7, 2212
It was chilly and lonely on the platform as Rick waited for the transport. Granted, it was a few minutes after 03:00, not prime time for mass transit even in this day and age. But since he rarely ventured out into the world, he couldn’t tell if this was normal or not, being the only person waiting at an IC hub.
He saw the headlight of the oncoming transport in the distance through the perma-haze. At a speed of almost 700 MPH, it would be at the platform in seconds. Eerie silence accompanied the visual. Suspended on a bed of negative gravity, the transport caused no friction and no sound as it approached. Using the IC transport was not an everyday occurrence for Rick, whose life was essentially contained to his cube. He normally had no reason to leave home.
In the time it took him to look down at a crack on the platform, then look back up again, the transport was right on top of him, its sleek, bullet frame easing to a silent stop. Its lit interior cast a glow through the windows on Rick and the platform. The doors parted and he stepped into the car. The doors closed behind him with a quick pfffft and the transport immediately moved forward without making a sound. Rick sat at a window and looked out. The transport picked up speed and the bleak landscape passed by. He was aware he was the only passenger.
He felt the G-force build and compress his torso when the dampers kicked-in. He felt immediate relief as the pressure on his body eased. The transport reached its maximum speed in less than a minute. The overhead ticker display showed SPEED: 642 MPH… G-FORCE: 3… EXTERNAL CONDITIONS: STABLE. The information repeated.
The external landscape, such as it was, offered a bleak picture of leveled darkness. There were no shadows, no obvious buildings, no trees. In the early morning blackness, it was hard to make out anything except vague outlines of craters, assorted debris and the vague outline of rows and rows of cubes in the distance. As Rick knew from rare past outings during daylight, there was nothing to see on the outside. The Big Five took care of that long ago, clearing everything almost down to bedrock to carry out the much-heralded terraforming and rebuilding that never happened. He reached into his jacket, removed his mobile, looked briefly at the screen, touched an icon, then returned it to his pocket.
Rick heard a couple of random thumps on the exterior of the transport. They were faint and not localized. He continued squinting out the window to try to see things. He drew his mobile back out and looked for the notes he had saved. The thumps were becoming more frequent and louder. He looked up at the ceiling and craned his neck to see if he could see anything out the window. The sounds soon became persistent, louder and surrounded the transport.
Without warning, the lights went out and the sensation of gravity crushing his torso came out of nowhere. The pain made him double over in the darkness. The IC was being pelted relentlessly by something on the outside, a rapid THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA. Fear started welling up in Rick’s belly. His eyes darted around but he saw only pitch black. The G-force was pushing him hard into his seat.
The pelting now roared against the skin of the transport. It sounded like a rain of mysterious projectiles that Rick couldn’t see. He cowered, his hands covering his head. He expected something to break through the transport’s skin at any moment. The sound was overwhelming, throbbing inside his ears. “Stop!” Rick yelled with his hands over his ears. He shook his head violently as if the motion would shake the noise away.
He felt a sudden deceleration, his body easing forward. The rhythm of the pelting objects slowed. He felt the forward motion slowing against the onslaught of whatever was smacking against the IC. He felt a rush of nausea and saw the landscape start to brighten outside his window.
There was a sudden whoosh of air against his face and he was surrounded by a new, deafening noise. He was startled and closed his eyes. He was hurtling at high speed through the air with no seat under him, no IC surrounding him. He was being swatted by something, stalks or branches. He shielded his face and eyes from the blows. It was obvious he was no longer inside the IC, but his furious forward motion continued. He couldn’t see, barreling head first through a field of tall plant growth that was smacking his body as he sped through it. He kept his hands up against his face, peeking through slightly parted fingers, trying to make out his trajectory. The plant stalks beat him relentlessly. He saw a clearing ahead. In another second, his body flew into an open area of green grass bathed in sunlight.
He dropped his hands to try to break his fall, then landed hard and rolled about 50-feet across the grass and stopped with a jolt. His forward movement was halted by something that rose up from the ground. The deafening sound halted. He was relieved, terrified and in pain. Sudden silence surrounded him.
His face was on the ground and he smelled grass, something he had done only once before as a boy in the Eco Museum. He was breathing fast and his ears rang. He heard a faint sound that he thought might be a bird. He strained to listen. He also heard what sounded like footsteps on a platform. He thought he was dreaming and waited to come out of it. His brain was scrambled. He had a terrific headache.
“Are you OK?” The voice came from somewhere close. He’d have to raise his head to see. He did so, but couldn’t focus right away and the sun almost blinded him.
“He’s moving,” said a second voice, possibly a female. “Hello?”
Rick raised his head and propped himself on his hands to rise off the ground. “Ouch,” he said with a grimace. The pain of being whacked by hundreds of corn stalks got his attention. He got up on all fours and tried to take in his surroundings while being wary of those watching him. He had come to rest at the base of a small stairway leading up to a house. There was a landing at the top of the steps on which stood a man and woman. The man held what Rick figured was a firearm. He recognized it from old pictures. It was pointed at him.
“You OK?” asked the man.
Rick was without speech, puzzled.
“Where did you come from?” asked the woman. “Did you come through the corn?”
Rick cleared his throat and was relieved he could make a noise. He slowly straightened up and stood. “I was on the IC.”
The man lowered the firearm. “What?” he asked.
“The IC. It disappeared. Didn’t you see?”
The man and woman looked at each other. She started walking down the steps towards Rick. Rick took a step backwards.
“It’s alright, young man,” she said. “You’re obviously confused. And look at your face. I don’t know what you’re doing here but why don’t you come up onto the porch and sit down and have a soda?”
Unsure of where he was, who these people were and how he got here, Rick shrugged and said, “OK.” He followed the woman up the steps and onto the porch. She showed him to a rocking chair. He sat and slowly rocked, confused and annoyed, but accepted that this couple did not appear to threaten him. The man walked past him and into the house. The woman had gone inside briefly and returned with a container of what appeared to be a beverage. She popped the top and handed it to him.
“Do you know where you are?” she asked.
Rick finished sipping and said, “No idea.”
The man emerged from the house holding a white cloth that appeared wet. “Here,” he said. “Use this to clean up those scratches. You look like someone raked your face.”
Rick looked at the man, then looked at the towel. He didn’t even realize he had scratches on his face. “Thank you,” he managed.
The woman nodded and said, “I’m going to call the Sheriff’s Department and see if they can help you figure things out.”
Rick looked at her blankly and said, “OK.” He resumed sipping the soda with one hand and dabbed at his scratches with the other. He held the soda in a slightly shaky hand and put the towel down with the other, then looked up at the man and asked, "What's today?"
"Thursday," he answered.
Rick managed a lame grin, followed by a weak nod. "Good enough. For now."
DEBRIEF TRANSCRIPT #1
SUBJECT: E. Stein
INTERROGATOR: Lawrence Caramundi
DATE & TIME: 11.8.2055, 15:07
PLACE: Planetary Commission, All purpose room F, Philadelphia
LC: Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name? Where are you from?
ES: I was born Enrico Janice Walton Stein on January 16, 2180. I’ll save you the math, I’m 32. I’ll also save you the next couple questions--my parents were bio-bi’s who wanted to preserve their so-called heritage, so they laid that name on me. You can call me Rick.
LC: OK, Rick. I’m Larry. Would you like coffee or water or something?
LC: Yes. How do you like it?
ES: What do you mean?
LC: Light? Sweet? Black?
ES: I don’t care.
LC: (Interrogator intercoms assistant to bring two coffees) Black, then.
LC. You were born in 2180?
LC: And you’re 32 now, so that would make the current year 2212?
LC: But, you know the current year is actually 2055.
ES: Is it?
LC: That’s kind of why we’re here.
ES: It was 2212 when I woke up this morning and when I got onto the IC.
LC: Well, I know you think that.
(Subject is silent for several seconds)
LC: We’ll get back to that. What’s a bio-bi?
ES: My parents were both biologically bisexual. Used to be called intersex.
LC: I see.
ES: I was born a bio-male and I’ve lived that way since birth. For a while there was an influx of intersex people, mostly accidents of tinkering with Mother Nature. They were showing up one in a hundred births. Anyway, that’s another story.
LC: OK. What’s the IC?
ES: Please, Larry. What’s up?
LC: What’s the IC?
ES: You know perfectly well what the IC is. Why are you messing with me?
LC: I’m not messing with you. You show up on some couple’s farm after apparently stumbling through their corn field. You collapse on their steps with nothing but the clothes on your back. You babble some shit about an IC. No one knows what the hell you’re talking about. Where’s your ID? You have no wallet, no phone.
ES: Never owned a wallet. I guess I lost my mobile.
LC: I guess you lost more than that.
ES: Listen to me carefully, Larry. I got on the IC—the Interconnect—at three in the morning to go to a team meeting in Sector 115. I live in Sector 17, which means a two-hour trip. I got on the IC car, which happened to be empty. After a few minutes, it went haywire, I got thrown from the car, careened through that fucking corn field and suddenly ended up on that couple’s front step. That’s the entire story.
LC: And you’re telling me the year when you woke up and got onto that IC thing was 2212?
ES: Of course. And you’re telling me it’s now 2055?
LC: November 8th, 2055, to be exact.
(Subject goes quiet again for approximately thirty seconds)
ES: The sun was so bright. Warm. Hadn’t smelled grass close up like that except once, as a child.
LC: So, what, there’s no grass in the future?
LC: Where do you live?
LC: Sorry, what?
ES: Sector 17, Master A, Cube 210.
LC: Ohhh-kay. You live in a cube?
(Subject rolls eyes)
ES: The modern single cube measures exactly 21-feet in each direction. Multiples of seven are the new standard, new since 2185 anyway, supposedly logic-tested at Beijing Command. It is the perfect size for a single.
LC: If you say so. Go on.
ES: Alright, I’ll humor you. The biggest innovation of the new design is the central sewage system—we call it the shit-chute--connected to each cube by the swing-away hygiene station--a crapper and tiny sink--that disappears into the wall after each use. The actual engineering is a mystery to me but the auto-wipe innovation made someone rich. The downside is that the high-speed disposal chute’s hydraulic core tends to lose energy when too many people evacuate at once, causing the waste to become lodged in the pipes and just sit there, sometimes for days. Fill in the blanks on that scenario.
LC: I’m trying to keep up. Go back a moment. One cube is part of a master? Master what?
ES: Master cube, a collection of cubes, like a kind of apartment building. More than three-thousand cubes in our master.
LC: Go on.
ES: At first, the cube walls were way too shiny. Nothing stuck. You couldn’t hang any graphics, no art. And the light bars reflected off them so badly, you went half blind just sitting there. They got smart a couple years ago, 2210 to be precise, when they changed the universal design to matte colors that absorbed light. It made everyone calmer, cut down on the suicides. The trickiest part of designing the cubes was creating pathways to the Interconnect. This led to the epic tram system connecting the Master cubes to IC hubs. After the initial deaths of people trying to walk to the hubs, they did away with the old moving sidewalks so as not to expose people to any possibility of falling, tripping or otherwise leaving the walks and ending up in the IC right-of-way and possible instant death. Now, people travel from their cubes to the IC without ever passing through the outside atmosphere. It reminds me of a quote from a 20th century writer named Fran Liebowitz who said the outside was simply what you pass through to get from your apartment to a taxi.
(Interrogator remains silent for approximately seven seconds.)
LC: Are you making all this up?
ES: Sorry if I’m going on. I’m playing along. I’m not sure what level of detail you want.
LC: I’m still not sure what level of psychotic you are. Your answers raise more questions than--
LC: Your narrative is detailed, practiced. It smacks of complete fantasy.
ES: I want to talk to your superior. If you’re going to insult me--
LC: Rick, I don’t mean to insult you. I’m only interested in facts and answers.
ES: I’m actually hoping you can provide some answers for me.